Coronavirus: just a storm in a teacup?

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The British are used to hyperbole. It’s why we take things with ‘a pinch of salt’ that others might be concerned about. Our media loves a good scare story, and the latest outbreak of Novel Coronavirus in the city of Wuhan, China, gave them the perfect vehicle for a full-on assault on the nation’s nervous state. In contrast it took a further week to make the Estonian papers, but when it did, a switch flicked in the brain of every Estonian – the country was on ‘one-step-from-sheer-panic’ alert.

Three weeks ago the British media began its onslaught. Referring to the viral outbreak as the ‘killer virus’, ‘the viral apocalypse’, ‘a wave of death from China’, amongst other things. The average Brit heard this on the radio whilst sat in traffic and turned the station over; glanced at these frankly petrifying headlines at the paper-stand and somehow got reminded that they needed to update Windows. 

The most likely response from my countrymen to this impending disaster was probably to compose and send jokes about it, jokes far too offensive and politically incorrect for social media but comfortably at home on WhatsApp, our favourite way to speak our minds. 

Meanwhile in Estonia, oblivion prevails. The media hadn’t picked up on it, the population had been spared the panic so far. News stories focusing more on the positive: the celebrations of Chinese new year in Tallinn, some crazy guy in Saaremaa making tonic out of Christmas trees and a usual cautious eye on the Eastern neighbour. 

Until about two weeks ago for the average Estonian, Coronavirus was another word for a nasty hangover from Mexican beer, and Novel Coronavirus a book about it. They may have heard something on international news portals about a virus in China, but no one else was worried, so neither was the general population. But it was all about to change.

On Friday 31st January, two Chinese tourists decided to have a lazy morning in their room at the Schlössle Hotel in Tallinn’s Old Town, with absolutely no idea what their decision to miss breakfast was about to do to this quiet, sensible and seemingly level-headed country they were visiting. When it was discovered they had missed breakfast, the hotel staff did what one would expect a hotel to do when you miss breakfast: they called an ambulance. 

Now this isn’t an attack on the reaction of the hotel staff, the alarmist Estonian nature. It’s nothing to do with low-level xenophobia or cultural naivety—even though these are things that come from not enough information on a subject to make sensible and informed decisions—like some have mentioned. Instead, it’s a telling window into the collective mind of a country, and at complete odds with that of us British.

Ask any Estonian if Tallinn, or the country at large, is safe and they’ll probably tell you it’s one of the safest places in the entire world to live. This is the true belief, despite the drivers that run red lights and speed down one-way streets the wrong way, or the dubious health and safety practices that see child-sized (and adult in some cases) gaps in river bridge barriers and maternity hospital waiting room stairwells (my personal favourite).

Estonians nonchalantly send their six-year-old kids off to school alone on buses, let kindergarten age kids play in the pouring rain and leave babies in their prams outside cafes.  Driving over ice roads barely thicker than a house-brick is considered normal, but not between 25-40kmph of course, as that would be dangerous. 

The British know their country is dangerous, but we chose not to care. We choose instead to see the best of everything, to ignore the knife-crime epidemic, the growing anger from the poorest in society at their situation, the threat from terrorism. Of course most of us know not to let our kids roam the UK’s streets before their age is at least double figures, or leave our laptops and phones at a table in a cafe unless we can spare it and have five more at home, and Brits would no more leave a baby in the street than cut off our own arms. There’s too high a risk that doing so would probably result in losing that baby, with the best outcome being that the one who takes your child is social services. The result of all this danger is it makes you into a complacent fatalist. 

For me however, I’ve had a rocky ride adjusting to life here in this sense. It’s why I understand the hotelier’s reaction and the Estonian way. When you put a street-hardened Brit into the soft, safe and laid-back environment that Estonia is now lucky enough to have, that blasé attitude to danger I mentioned earlier disappears, it’s replaced with a pragmatic attitude to real danger and a measured approach to risk. Initially this results in one becoming a nervous wreck for a short while, but you soon get used to the sense of safety.

Walking past a gang of hooded teens in the suburbs without an altercation, returning to my not-stolen phone after getting more coffee, reading and watching terrible news of shootings, earthquakes, forest fires, wars and disease from around the world with the knowledge that ‘it’ll probably never happen here’, it all becomes the norm. And herein lies the issue for the Estonians (and now myself), because the second you think something from ‘out there’ might affect us ‘in here’, it initiates both personal and shared pandemonium. 

Let’s imagine for a second that this virus arrives in both the UK and Estonia, despite the measured advice from the WHO (World Health Organisation) concerning the low likelihood of infection. Based on our track records dealing with the yearly arrival of influenza and the common cold, how might the British and the Estonians react. I warn you, there will be a degree of exaggeration here. 

For the British the panic will be entirely misdirected, and full advantage taken.

BBC News: ‘Apocalyptic scenes as killer coronavirus pandemic brings UK to a standstill,’ cries the UK’s state broadcaster, attempting to whip up panic and viewing figures for their 24hr rolling news. Pictures of Mancunians in face masks queuing at Greggs for Vegan sausage rolls – in case you get it from pork ‘like that other one’. Londoners fighting over Ubers with air-con and starkly empty shelves in Birmingham supermarkets that once displayed hand-sanitiser gels, Special Brew and Monster Munch.

Just like at Christmas, Brits will panic buy Tesco out of the essentials: bread, milk and tea. Chocolate digestives will end up as rare over there as they are over here, and the only foodstuff that will still be available to buy will be noodles, crispy beef, wan-tons and sweet and sour chicken – just in case, you know.

Brits will go home, batten down the hatches, crank up Netflix and use the whole thing as a damn good excuse not to do very much of anything for the foreseeable future. They won’t even attempt to work from home, citing the fact that they read on Facebook that the virus can be transmitted through Lenovo or Huawei products, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

For the people of Estonia, the reaction will be a little more reserved – but only at first.

ERR Uudised: ‘Coronavirus comes to Estonia, starting in Tallinn’s Old Town with plans to visit our beautiful islands in the spring.’

After the initial swell of pride that the virus had chosen Estonia, and several puff pieces in Estonian World about how the country is one of the top-10 destinations for the virus according the New York Times medical experts, the sense of overwhelming invincibility across the country will be showing signs of cracking. 

As the situation escalates anyone heard speaking any language other than Estonian will be treated with suspicion and marked as a potential carrier, with hotels and the airport turned into quarantine centres for anyone who’s never heard of Liis Lemsalu or doesn’t like herring. The Old Town will be put on lock-down, like Wuhan, just to be on the safe side, and locals airlifted to safety at a makeshift facility in Noblessner  – the theory being that because it’s expensive it’ll be safer. 

Meanwhile in the countryside, sales of vodka and socks skyrocket, children are covered head-to-toe in Zelionka as a precaution and entire families take hourly saunas using a rota system to ensure the heat never drops below 90°C. The risk of death from fatigue becomes higher than actually contracting the virus for elderly grandmothers, as they are put on strict tea, ginger, lemon and honey duty. Set to task producing litres of the stuff for entire villages and for sale to illegal border crossers in Põlva County.

Luckily, the risk of such scenarios is low. The Brits will no doubt barely notice, not appreciate their lucky escape and keep moaning about Brexit. The Estonians will most likely carry on as usual, always confident that ‘this sort of this doesn’t happen here’, whilst being slightly disappointed that the stats couldn’t be bragged about in some way. 

Although not wishing for such a test, as a resident of Tallinn I have full confidence in the Estonian health system. Here medical care is of high-quality and we know those working within it are true, dedicated professionals. I’m also sure the Estonian government has a sensible and workable plan, and are more than capable of dealing with whatever coronavirus-related issues may arise, rendering my above ramblings as pure sarcastic jest. However, I do want it on record that ‘Sinu ees‘ is a great track, and I had herring on black bread for breakfast this morning – just in case, you know.

First appeared in Postimees, 7th February 2020