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2020.04.25 10:00

Dispatch from Riga. Latvia tackles Covid-19 without hard lockdown or closing bars

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Janis Rancans, LRT.lt2020.04.25 10:00

Lithuania's Baltic neighbour Latvia opted for less stringent measures to survive the coronavirus crisis. Janis Rancans reports for LRT English from the country's capital, Riga.

Latvia’s first known Covid-19 patient came from Milan on February 29. When her flight landed at Riga Airport, she met with family and went home. In a blunder of the country’s healthcare, she was discharged the next day when her symptoms disappeared and a follow-up test came back negative.

Just two weeks later, the country was in an unprecendent socioeconomic and health crisis.

From tranquility to social distancing in two weeks

On March 12, Latvia declared a state of emergency. Three days later, it closed its border with Russia and Belarus.

Together with Tallinn and Vilnius, Riga started attempts to bring back Baltic people stranded abroad and spent days persuading Warsaw to allow people to return home through Poland and to restart supply lines.

Read more: Lithuanian delegation departs for Poland as border closures wreak havoc

Yet contrary to most European capitals, or even Vilnius, one can still find cafes or bars open in Riga, but only if the owners are able to provide a two-metre distance between clients. There also can’t be more than one person per four square meters.

Not everybody can ensure these measures and many bars and restaurants are closed. Those who stay open, still get some visitors, althought noticebly many less than before the coronavirus crisis. Late night partying has also been stopped, with all venues ordered to shut their doors at 22:00.

Now, central Riga looks eerie with empty streets and without the British tourists, or cruise ship tour groups.

The government has also adopted a resolution that allows alcohol sales online, helping cut down on the number of people going outside. Courier sevices like Wolt are now the preferred option for many.

Latvian response to the coronavirus crisis has largely been inspired by Southeast Asian countries –on one hand trying to stop the spread of the virus by testing and contact tracing, but on the other hand, trying not to crash the economy by imposing a total lockdown or a quarantine.

Even Latvian internal EU borders are open and possible to travel. Though in practice, because of more draconian policies both in Estonia and Lithuania, there is no significant movement of people except for Baltic repatriates and cargo traffic.

Read more: Latvia allows Lithuanian and Estonian workers to cross border for work

Latvians are permitted to walk around the streets, use buses, trains, go shopping or travel to other cities, if the social distancing requirements are kept.

Contrary to many countries around the world, Latvia never issued mandatory stay-at-home orders, wide quarantine measures or lockdowns of the whole society.

Uga Dumpis, the director of the infectous diseases department at a Riga hospital that handles Covid-19 patients, dismissed the need for quarantine on March 18

In reference to Lithuania, he tweeted: "To those who want quarantine I can explain, that this is used when you cant understand anymore who is sick and who is not, and when hospitals are full of people. Singapore and South Korea still function doing social distancing and contact tracing."

However, Interior Minister Sandis Ģirģens seems more inspired with Lithuanian actions, and has publically stated that Riga should be quarantined, because most cases of Covid-19 infection have been registered in the Latvian capital.

This led to a verbal battle between Health Minister Ilze Viņķele and Ģirģens, during the talk show aired in March by the Latvian public broadcaster.

Viņķele suggested that politicians better listen to health specialists and epidemiologists. Hovewer, some argue that Riga municipal elections at the end of the summer must be taken in account, where the party of the health minister Viņķele is expected to be a frontrunner.

On lighter note, many joke, that Latvians by nature are very introvert nation, and social distancing for them is coming very naturally.

Also the number of registered offenses have so far been low. According to the Latvian police, number of violations have stayed at 10–15 cases per day.

To help senior citizens who are more afraid to go outside and those quarantined, a volunteer movement has arisen.

People from all sorts of life are coordinating their help – mostly shopping for quarantined and vulnerable - via special mobile app.

Outside of central Riga, the neighbourhoods are much quiet than during normal time, but the lives go on. Alone or in familes, people are working in their gardens, traveling to seashore or national parks, doing sports or barbecuing. You can almost get a some sense of normality.

The schools started to teach kids remotely via onlie platforms and government started special educational TV Channel Tava Klase, but entertainers, musicians and workout trainers are now operating from YouTube.

After member of Saeima Artuss Kaimiņš tested positive for Covid-19, the Latvian government and parliament also decided to work remotely and to use online conferencing platforms. The digital revolution in Latvia arrived in a matter of several hours.

Borrowed billions for corona era

The Latvian government hastily negotiated one-billion-euro bailout package for businesses, which later ballooned to 4 billion euros.

After border closures in the EU, the tourism sector, the national carrier airBaltic, Riga Airport and Tallink, have been among the first to experience the crisis. Mass layoffs started at airBaltic and Riga Airport.

Big Latvian farmers and food producers are only selling around half of their production in the local market, as the rest departs to other European countries. Economical downturn in EU could mean that Latvian farmers suffer from export loss.

Afraid of bancrupcies in agriculture sector, government allocated 45 million euros to farmers, and has called for customers to buy Latvian producted food to increase local demand and help farmers to get throught possible loss of export markets.

As for rest of 4 billion bailout, theoretically simulus programme works in two major ways – paying 75 percent of salaries directly to people whose jobs stopped during crisis (but not more than 700 euros before tax), and allowing businesses to take tax holidays and credit guarantees.

In practice, however, there are many affected who do not qualify for the government support and the Latvian authorities are forced to make amendments to the stimulus package almost every other day.

The state has recieved significant criticism because of reluctance to pay allowances for self-employed and workers in companies who owe more than 1,000 euros in tax debt.

The problem is particularly acute for people who earned most of their income in the black. As the allowance is calculated from the legal part of salary, most recipients received no more than the Latvian minimum wage of 430 euros, according to the Latvian Revenue Service.

After major criticism, Latvian government started talks to amend package and set 180 euro minimal allowance without any prerequisites.

Time to collapse and time to change

According to the Latvian Central Bank, economy this year could shrink around 6.5 percetnt of GDP, similarly as in Lithuania.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) meanwhile had an even grimmer outlook. According to the IMF, Latvian GDP wil shrink by 8.6 percent this year, which could be the largest drop in the Baltic states.

Read more: Every quarantine week shrinks Lithuania's GDP by 0.5 percent – finance minister

Still, Latvian politicians hope that country will be in better position than other European countries who opted for more restrictive response to crisis.

The government hopes that allocated monetary help will be enough for businesses to escape mass layouts and they will continue to survive, ensuring a so-called V-shaped recovery – meaning, the drop will rebound as quickly as it fell.

This position is somewhat confirmed by the IMF, which forecasts Latvian GDP to grow by 8.3 percent next year.

The editor of Forbes magazine in Latvia, Alina Lastovska, told LRT English that the crisis is changing consumer behaviors. The businesses which “won’t be able to change or transform their services, will be in a bad spot,” said Lastovska.

“The crisis will change people’s behavior – they will order all kinds of goods online. Businesses will rethink how they are spending their money, workers will get used to working remotely,” said Lastovska. “That could change the corporate environment. It’s also possible that some [companies] will become more effective.”

Yet, owners of small businesses are already fighting for their very survival.

Guillen Cipars, a shop owner who sells accessories and clothes in Riga, said the turnaround has fallen dramatically. ”The tourism season will be annihilated and that means a sizable part of lost income,” said Guillen.

“We suggest that everybody use this time to generate new ideas and do other business homework,” he added.

On Friday, Latvia had 784 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with around 40 people stationated at hospitals.

So far, the authorities said 12 people died in connection with the virus – two of them had other chronic illnesses.

However, by April 20, the cumulative number of tests done in Latvia was around 36,6 thousand, outnumbered by Lithuania’s 66,300 and Estonia’s 40,900.

It seems Latvia was able to maintain the same low number of infections and deaths as neighbouring states without enacting similarly harsh measures as in Lithuania.

Latvia’ state of emergency should be lifted on May 12. If the rate of infections remains at a similar rate, the country will have survived the crisis without needed to enforce nationwide quarantine, or seal off entire towns.

Janis Rancans is a journalist based in Riga, Latvia.