By Viljar Veebel, Baltic Defence College, Estonia
A successful term in the role of the EU presidency in 2017 lent to raised expectations that Estonia could play an important role in European integration and its digital future. However, like many countries, Estonia had difficult years in 2018-2020, caused by growing popularity of radical populism, increasingly visible Russian security threats, and migration issues dividing society. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, 2020 will be remembered as a year of hopelessness, stagnation, and uncertainty for most of the population. However, this tragic experience has also opened up new opportunities for modern societies to employ the full potential of digital ambitions and innovation. In this respect, Estonia is at the forefront of realising these new digital solutions and technological developments. Even when some of these attempts fail, these failures nonetheless offer valuable lessons. Other countries could benefit from Estonian experiences in digital innovation in coping with the COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only put extraordinary pressure on healthcare and social welfare systems worldwide but has had a massive negative impact in many areas like education, economy, movement of people, human behavior, long-term work habits, and entrepreneurship as well. Thus, while the pandemic is about lost lives, it has also adversely affected about jobs, dreams, and opportunities for those not directly ill with the virus. Over the last year, even the most developed countries have not managed to provide people confidence and assurance that the situation is under control and that society might soon return to a sense of normality.
In many aspects, the situation in small developing countries like Estonia is even more complicated. On the one hand, both financial and material resources are clearly more limited than in well-developed countries. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis in early 2020, the Estonian government introduced an economic support package of €2 billion, offered loan guarantees to local entrepreneurs, provided guarantees for rural development activities, and carried out some employment-related support measures. However, these sums and guarantees are by far not comparable to stimulus packages and measures that, e.g., Germany provides to its entrepreneurs and citizens. On the other hand, knowledge and intellectual resources often places some constraints on small and developing countries. Professor Krista Fischer, an Estonian academic and the expert of biostatistics in Estonia, has confessed that at the onset of the crisis, there were no experts or research groups in Estonia who had experience in modelling the spread of infectious diseases while in Finland several research groups have studied this topic already for decades. In such circumstances, Estonia had to start with a clean slate in modelling the behavior of the coronavirus and achieved even better results overall. Seemingly, models that were efficient in predicting the spread of ‘traditional’ infectious diseases like influenza were not optimal in modelling the behavior of COVID-19.
At the onset of the pandemic, Estonia had to find innovative solutions in other areas as well. In April 2020, the country launched an international hackathon “Fighting a Global Crisis” to collect ideas that would help in the prevention of the further spread of the COVID-19. The event was motivated by a local joint hackathon of Estonian companies and public sector institutions that had taken place a few weeks earlier where many useful technological innovations were proposed. A digital platform for sharing the latest statistics on the spreading of COVID-19 and dynamics of vaccination in Estonia that can be found in the web link https://koroonakaart.ee/en; the digital platform that brings together local volunteers with medical background or previous experiences in the field of social sphere VAAB (https://vaab.ee/) and the digital questionnaire with the aim to predict both the individual risk of being infected and the spread of the coronavirus in general in Estonia (https://coronatest.ee/) are just some examples of digital innovations that were invented and launched by Estonian people as a result of local ‘digital brainstorm.’
This development could be expected from a country that uses internet voting in national elections for almost 15 years already (i-Voting), has made almost all public services available online 24/7 (the e-Governance project), has developed a system of digital e-health services like digital health record, digital registry, digital image, and digital prescription system for patients (e-Health), and has launched a digital platform of school management that brings together pupils, parents, and teachers (eKool). This digital progress is self-evident for Estonian society, and thereby a policy choice that does not necessitate any further argumentation or persuasion. Furthermore, Estonia gladly shares its digital innovations with other countries. For example, the country recently made some of its digital educational tools also internationally available to other countries in the framework of the project “Education nation.”
However, pioneers and innovators need to be ready for setbacks and failures. In this respect, Estonia is clearly not an exception. For example, one of the most ‘visible’ outcomes of the cooperation between state and local entrepreneurs is the Estonian mobile application HOIA (https://hoia.me/en/) that has been developed to track and identify close contacts with people infected with COVID-19 virus. Over the past year, the Estonian government has strongly promoted the HOIA app for public use in addition to strong suggestions to keep a safe distance with others and to wear face masks in public. Today, there are more than 250,000 people in Estonia who use the application. However, it turned out recently that additional development activities are needed to make the HOIA application more user-friendly. Unfortunately, the state failed to conduct the respective procurement, and precious time – weeks if not months – was lost in improving the application that could literally ‘save people’s lives.’ During such hardship, the government particularly cannot afford to fail to support such critical activities or delay important decisions. The example of the HOIA application clearly shows that half-way solutions – like a partly outdated mobile application – is of no use, as it creates an only a fake sense of security among the public instead of providing updated information on the potential risk of infection.
During such periods of adversity, adequate and actual information is critical for governments, entrepreneurs, and people to make their decisions. Paradoxically, the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories is particularly common during these times of uncertainty. The period of the current pandemic is not an exception, and this dangerous trend has many facets. On the one hand, COVID-19 related issues are prioritized worldwide and a trove of information, studies, medical opinions, and political statements on this topic is published on a daily basis. It is impossible for ordinary people to investigate the credibility of all sources and the trustworthiness of the information they share. Furthermore, according to a recent local survey from February 2021, almost three quarters (70–73 percent) of survey respondents in Estonia agree that a lot of incorrect and inadequate information is released regarding COVID-19 because people have little knowledge of it. Slightly more than half of the respondents also agree that a lot of information is intentionally misleading and deceptive. Thus, people seem to be confused about the information published in the current Estonian media space.
What makes the situation even more complicated is that at the same time, people expect clear guidelines and guarantees in the fight with the virus, and it is difficult for them to understand that under the high level of uncertainty, neither politicians nor scientists cannot provide a 100 percent guarantee that various restrictions, social distancing, and other measures enacted will stop the spread of the virus in the nearest future. On the other hand, Estonian experts have pointed out that what people think of the measures implemented by the government to control the COVID-19 pandemic is closely related to the way people think of the government in general. When some people are extremely critical of the current government, they are also critical also about the COVID-19-related measures that the government puts into place, even if the measures themselves seem to be reasonable and justified.
The most recent clash of opinions in Estonian society is related to the issue of COVID-19 vaccination. According to the same survey, around 62 percent of the survey respondents would be ready to vaccinate, 34 percent would certainly do it should the possibility occur, and 28 percent have not decided yet. In general, men tend to be more positive about vaccination than women are; the same applies to elderly people. Persons holding non-Estonian citizenship, referring mostly to local Russian speakers, are more suspicious as regards vaccination; while about 69 percent of survey respondents with Estonian citizenship would be ready or rather ready to vaccinate themselves, the same applies only to less than half (46 percent) of those with the non-Estonian citizenship. Nearly 29 percent of all survey respondents would rather not or certainly not vaccinate themselves. This distribution clearly indicates that there are certain groups in Estonian society that are against vaccination, which could be linked to Russian propaganda that undermines the trust in vaccines. However, particularly at the early stages of vaccination, the Estonian government itself has made some mistakes in policy planning, such as the failure to compile clear guidelines of who should be vaccinated in Estonia and what exactly should underline a vaccination schedule. Last, several individual incidents have significantly undermined the trustworthiness of the Estonian government institutions and local hospitals in making reliable plans for COVID-19 vaccination. For example, one leading social affairs ministry civil servant got an off-schedule Coronavirus vaccine and the same applies to a high-level Russia diplomat working in Estonia. To conclude, a small country like Estonia particularly cannot afford to make mistakes that create public mistrust in the measures the government enacts to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. The same applies to half-way solutions in public communication and dissemination of information. In the period of the current pandemic, people might literally lose their lives due to of indecisiveness, delays, and disinformation. There is no time for hesitation.
Estonian expertise can be of great use in strengthening Europe’s digital society, through connecting governing institutions and citizens at the EU level and improving connectivity among European countries. Today, one of the main challenges Estonia faces is to increase its credibility and influence in the Union. As a small, innovative country with limited human and financial resources, Estonia must find its niche. There are several policy areas in which the country has the potential to be a leader at the EU level – and even globally. This applies mostly to issues related to a digital society, as both domestically and abroad, Estonia has extensive experience in creating advanced digital networks that interlink national information systems and databases. However, two factors complicate Estonia’s attempts to make its voice heard – in a constructive way, of course – in the European Union in the near future. Firstly, the country has partially lost its positive image as a digital pioneer after setbacks in 2017–2020, when it was forced to replace hundreds of thousands of identity cards due to security vulnerabilities. Furthermore, Estonia has recently dropped from eighth place to ninth place in the Digital Economy and Society Index. Estonian digital experts have stressed that the country might easily slip further down the rankings unless it invests sufficient resources in the field.
About the Author
Viljar Veebel is a researcher at the Baltic Defence College and a lecturer at the Estonian School of Diplomacy. He works also as an associated national researcher for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He holds a doctoral degree in political science (Ph.D.) from University of Tartu. He has worked as academic advisor of the Estonian government in the European Future Convention and as researcher for the OSCE, SIDA and the Eurasia Group.
 See, for example, https://www.politico.eu/article/covid-vaccine-disinformation-russia/ , https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/azerbaijan/90950/pro-kremlin-disinformation-covid-19-vaccines_en and several other similar reports.