2021.02.28 08:00

'Sometimes we went too far'. One year of Covid-19 in Lithuania

Modesta Gaučaitė-Znutienė, LRT.lt2021.02.28 08:00

At 03:00 on February 28, 2020, the health minister at the time rose to the podium to announce the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Lithuania. Although press conferences are unusual at such an early hour, Aurelijus Veryga could not wait until the morning.

A woman in Šiauliai, northern Lithuania, became the first person infected with the novel coronavirus in the country. Since then, almost 200,000 people have fallen ill with Covid-19 – 3,200 people in Lithuania have also lost their lives.

“The responsibility was huge and there was a lot of uncertainty. Not only in Lithuania, but also around, nobody knew what kind of a virus it was, what kind of an enemy we faced,” Saulius Skvernelis, the prime minister at the time, told a year later.

“It was unclear how to fight and how to treat people.” Multiple lockdowns and a year with hollowed out lives was unimaginable at the time, he added.

An unprecedented move

The first days of March were relatively quiet, without new infections confirmed until March 11, Lithuania’s independence day. As the country marked the 30th anniversary of the declaration, two new cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Kaunas. In the days that followed, new cases were emerging one after the other.

It took only three days for the government led by Skvernelis to call an extraordinary cabinet meeting on Saturday, March 14. At around 21:00, the government announced that the country would go into a quarantine.

“We had to make this decision to save the lives of the Lithuanian people. [...] There is no other way and no other choice,” Skvernelis said after the decision was taken.

At the beginning, the quarantine was planned to last two weeks, during which movement to and from Lithuania was restricted, non-essential shops closed, most services and non-urgent medical services suspended, events, sport activities were banned and work moved online or done remotely whenever possible.

“Decisions had to be made because quarantine is one of the ways to prevent the spread of any viral, uncontrollable infectious disease,” Skvernelis told “Without any pressure about the outcome, health experts and advisers made very clear predictions about what we could expect.”

No one in Lithuania knew what the virus was like.

Just a few days after the quarantine announcement, Covid-19 took its first life in Lithuania. On March 21, an elderly person died in Ukmergė, northwestern Lithuania.

Two weeks later, the government extended the quarantine for another two weeks. Then again. The quarantine lasted until June 17.

However, the summer gave hope for many that life had finally returned to normal – the number of new cases diagnosed daily dropped to only a few. Yet, there were no days with zero infections.

“It was important to wait for warmer weather. The medics [also] mentioned that the unfavorable period will start in November–December. They said that when the weather warms up, the situation will get better,” remembered Skvernelis.

Facemask controversy

In April, wearing protective facemasks in public became mandatory. However, the new rule soon became a controversial issue as politicians, such as Health Minsiter Aurelijus Veryga, changed his mind about the matter several times.

As a result, messages on social media appeared criticising the mandatory wearing of facemasks, doubting its effectiveness and even claiming that it could be harmful.

In May, the rule was revoked. But from August 1, masks became mandatory again on public transport and in service locations. Soon this requirement was extended further – masks became mandatory at events, leisure and shopping venues.

The decision once again provoked opposition. A rally against the rules was held in Vilnius in November, although only a handful of people showed up.

Fight for protective equipment

When the coronavirus arrived in Lithuania, disinfectant liquids, protective masks and disposable gloves were quickly swept off shop shelves.

As demand for protective equipment grew, the price of respirators and masks at online stores increased several times.

The general population and frontline medical workers alike faced shortages. On March 28, the first shipment of protective equipment for medics arrived in Lithuania, containing 3 million pairs of protective gloves, 200,000 respirators FFP2 and about 33,000 protective goggles.

At the time, the government had announced that a total of 1.8m respirators, 5.7m face masks, 1.8m disposable hats, 0.8m goggles, 1.8m disposable protective suits, over 1m protective overalls, 15m disposable gloves, and 3.6 m shoe covers had been ordered from China.

A new lockdown

Almost five months after the end of the first quarantine, Skvernelis' government decided to declare the second lockdown on November 7.

The announcement was long expected and speculations were growing that the government had been avoiding the decision due to parliamentary elections that took place on October 11.

The numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases at the time were significantly higher than in spring. On the day when the first quarantine was announced by the government, only four new cases were confirmed. When the second quarantine came into effect, the number was 1,457.

Post-election lockdown

In December, the new government led by Ingrida Šimonytė took over the management of the pandemic.

The new cabinet decided to tighten the existing quarantine rules, introducing for the first time what could be described as a full lockdown, with restrictions on domestic travel and contacts between people.

The ban on non-essential travel between municipalities was initially supposed to last only during the Christmas period, but at the end of February it is still in force.

“We could have done something much earlier, and maybe today we would be in a situation where we could use traditional control methods and somehow wait for Christmas a little calmer. But none of us can change the past,” Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said after the government announced the lockdown rules.

“The numbers are frightening and very sad. It's possible to look at numbers just as numbers, but [...] if you know these people personally, then the relationship with such a statistic becomes completely different,” she added.

It seems that, for many, the second lockdown is more difficult than the first one and people have held rallies, including a “small business funeral” and an “outdoor training”, to protest against the shutdown.

Covid rollercoaster

Already in October, the number of new cases rose from tens to hundreds a day, and in November, the figure jumped to more than a thousand new daily cases. The highest daily number of new Covid-19 infections was reported on December 17, with 3,887 people diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.

The number of deaths from Covid-19 increased sharply during the winter as well. The highest daily number of deaths from coronavirus was reported on December 24, when 62 people lost their lives.

During the following months, the number of deaths decreased significantly.

First vaccines after Christmas

Vaccines have become perhaps the most important tool in the fight against Covid-19. Lithuania received its first doses on the second day of Christmas.

The first jabs manufactured by BioNTech and Pfizer were given to doctors and healthcare workers, followed by residents and staff of care homes.

In January, vaccines produced by another manufacturer – Moderna – also reached Lithuania, while the first shipment of AstraZeneca jabs arrived in February.

President Gitanas Nausėda set a goal to achieve collective immunity in Lithuania by July – this would require vaccinating two-thirds of the population. However, the goal will be hard to reach due to the potentially slow supply of vaccines.

“Only a successful and smooth implementation of mass vaccination will free us from the grip of the pandemic and allow us to return to normal life,” Nausėda said.

With the coronavirus rampant in Lithuania for almost a year, the cabinet has extended the lockdown until March 31.

"We have a situation that some call a deterioration or a third wave. I would view it as a kind of stalling. [...] We would like to believe that [...] by extending the scope of testing, we will nevertheless be able to see what restrictions on movement are still needed from mid-March, if they are needed at all,” said the prime minister.

Some decisions were wrong

Before deciding to introduce the lockdown, it was necessary to assess both the impact of the virus on human health and lives as well as the economy, according to Skvernelis.

Normally, good practices of other countries would be assessed when making similar decisions, he said. At that time, however, no country was in control of the pandemic.

“When we took the first step, it was a completely unknown territory and sometimes we went too far. Small businesses and services were hit hard. After that, we gradually lifted the restrictions, while imposing very high safety requirements,” Skvernelis said.

“Perhaps we should have restricted movement on the All Souls' Day [November 2], but it looked like people would stay outdoors [and] the risk was minimal,” he said.

However, the holiday weekend has been identified by epidemiologists as one of the causes leading to the spike of infections in December.

“Apparently after visiting the graves of loved ones people also had family contacts. That weekend didn't help control the situation,” added Skvernelis.