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2020.09.02 08:00

Lithuania avoided anti-quarantine protests. How did people deal with first wave of Covid-19?

Daiva Repečkaitė, LRT.lt2020.09.02 08:00

Lithuania is cited among the European success stories in dealing with the first wave of the novel coronavirus. As the number of cases rises, what lessons has Lithuania learned?

“This is not a crisis heroically to be solved by one person. You cannot force people to wash their hands – you can only convince them,” political scientist Ivan Krastev said of the Covid-19 pandemic at the European Forum Alpbach in August.

He believes that governments enacting similar public health policies around the world meet two types of challengers: firstly, those who totally mistrust everything coming from science because scientists do not agree with each other; and secondly, those who do not trust experts, because they think governments cherry-pick doctors to justify their already-made decisions.

“I’m dumbfounded. Stop succumbing to this psychosis […]. Chill, this virus isn’t here, the disease isn’t here,” anti-vaccination activist Andrius Lobovas fumed on Facebook in mid-March, shortly after he was told by the police to close his tattoo parlour. At the time Lithuania had 36 confirmed cases of the virus. In another post, he and celebrity businessman Ugnius Kiguolis were making claims that patients in Italy were actually dying of underlying medical conditions rather than Covid-19 – and there should be no lockdown in Lithuania.

The media faced a dilemma: ignore such claims at the risk of Covid-19 denialism spreading in the community, or fact-check it at the risk of amplifying conspiracy theories. As the infection numbers rose around Europe, many fringe movements and activists discovered a new niche.

No fertile soil for populists

Experts agree that the media play a crucial role in encouraging people to comply with the rules and help the most vulnerable. According to Cardiff University researchers, media audiences felt confused by the multitude of contradictory stories and expected more fact-checking from the media.

Rūta Bagdanavičiūtė from Vytautas Magnus University, who researches consumer society and media philosophy, says Lithuanian journalists acted well when they focused on both personal and political responsibility.

“Journalists made a positive contribution when they shed light on cases where people malignantly refused to adopt containment measures,” while also keeping track of counterproductive measures, she says. “For example, people arriving from abroad were forcibly quarantined together in a hotel without realising that they can infect one another,” Bagdanavičiūtė notes. Scrutiny of such measures prompted authorities to adjust and improve their decisions.

Read more: Lithuania's new quarantine rules lead to ‘chaos’ and fights

Examples from some countries show that without trust in institutions and mainstream media, conspiracy stories proliferate. In Kazakhstan, for example, influencers led many to believe that the virus is a hoax unleashed to control people’s behaviour. In Slovakia, according to a Foreign Policy article, the opposite happened – fringe and conspiracy sites stepped back and gave official information sources enough breathing space to transmit information.

Political behaviour researcher Jogilė Ulinskaitė from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University observes that “the main debate among academics globally is whether the pandemic creates favourable conditions for populist politics or, on the contrary, marginalises them”.

In some cases, international conspiracy proponents enjoyed protection from the political establishment. In February, activists who believe in links between the novel coronavirus and 5G networks received a warm welcome in the parliament - ruling party member Dainius Kepenis convened academics opposing 5G to voice their concerns, even though national and international authorities have pointed out that there is no evidence of 5G's harm.

On the other hand, these anti-establishment conspiracies remained diffused in the political landscape. Ulinskaitė notes that the general trend was that anti-establishment politicians and smaller parties have essentially vanished from the public space.

“This is probably a short-term change,” she warns. Lithuania’s general election in October will put the internationally praised mobilisation to a test. Fragmentation of opinions and alliances may increase.

The government had fewer critics

“During the pandemic, the executive had a lot of power to make decisions, and the society and media accepted them without any major resistance or criticism, if not supported them wholeheartedly,” comments the populism researcher Ulinskaitė.

In March, nearly all survey respondents (94%) supported the introduction of a state of emergency, and in late April, a survey showed that four in five Lithuanians felt well-informed about pandemic containment measures; nine in ten supported lockdown extension to mid-May.

Approval ratings of the prime minister and the health minister remained stable throughout the pandemic. “For the opposition, criticising the ruling majority’s decisions, when the society is so supportive of quarantine measures, would risk angering the public,” Ulinskaitė notes.

During a conference call with Lithuania’s government in June, Frederico Guanais from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development praised the country’s initial steps to manage the pandemic. Lithuania was in a good starting position, with the numbers of doctors and ICU beds above OECD average, according to Guanais.

Yet as the authorities were taking these steps in March, public policy expert Vitalis Nakrošis wrote a scathing analysis for LRT, criticising the lack of leadership from the country’s chief epidemiologists and the National Public Health Centre, insufficient flexibility, and bureaucratic red tape.

For example, lockdowns were speedily imposed, but procurement of protective equipment lagged, Nakrošis wrote. Health minister Aurelijus Veryga claimed that, had he started procuring PPE back in January, he would have been jailed – presumably for wastefulness.

In March, Politico rated the panic level, “based on the intensity of media coverage, people going on buying sprees and other indicators,” in Lithuania at 6/10 – against 3/10 in Estonia and 1/10 in Latvia. Thus, although the public largely accepted the new rules, Lithuanians were more prone to hoarding than their Baltic neighbours.

Ulinskaitė notes that reports of protective equipment shortages in healthcare institutions at the beginning of the pandemic put minister Veryga under pressure. But the ruling party enjoyed the society’s approval of its major decisions throughout the quarantine, and so the government found itself propped up by volunteer efforts. “The society mobilised to procure protective equipment and help each other, especially seniors,” Ulinskaitė says.

In mid-March, the government set up a coordination centre to assist people struggling with the lockdown in finding help. The numerous participating non-profits and charities were joined by corporations. Volunteers covered most of Lithuania’s major regions.

Minister Veryga himself praised people’s compliance with the lockdown measures, volunteer initiatives, and the media’s responsible attitude when asked about how Lithuania achieved this mobilisation.

Read more: ‘Society is making miracles happen’. Civic initiatives sweep across Lithuania

In July, the Ministry of Health awarded some of the key volunteers: members of the Scout and Riflemen’s Union organisations who helped patrol the streets against crowding, delivered food to senior citizens, and answered hotline calls. Other volunteers helped authorities with contact tracing, offered consultations to people in quarantine or those arriving via ports, airports, and land borders.

As the ‘second wave’ approaches, Ulinskaitė warns that the honeymoon between the government and its potential critics will not last forever.

“I believe that the general silence and approval is running out, and we are entering a stage when the previously adopted measures will be scrutinised and closely analysed,” Ulinskaitė predicts. With the population weary of lockdowns and outbreaks cropping up, there is no guarantee that pandemic management will not become a contested issue in autumn.