Ahti Tolvanen: coronavirus and us

by , under Ahti Tolvanen


The closure of hundreds of schools, theaters, gymnasiums, and restaurants as well as the closing off of the Province of Uusimaa very much gives the appearance that the government is serious about doing everything it can to protect the country from the COVID-19 epidemic sweeping the world.

It seems to show a willingness to take hard decisions in the interests of public safety and go beyond political convenience. I chanced the other day to meet a friend from Afghanistan who I had me through volunteering at church and we got to speaking about his friend in a similar situation. I asked if they were still meeting up.

“No, he was moved further north to a reception center in Central Finland”.

I was surprised to hear this in light of current deteriorating epidemic when people are being encouraged to stay where they are currently living. It also led me to enquire further into the situation regarding Refugee Reception Centers in general. There are over 4 000 persons living in crowded circumstances in 50 such centers all over Finland.

I sent a message to Interior Minister Marja Ohisalo to ask if something was being done to keep these crowded facilities from becoming hotbeds to spread the epidemic which has already killed 40 people in Finland. There was no answer.

The problem has been noticed and measures taken in other countries but not in Finland. In Greece two refugee reception centers were recently placed under special quarantine restrictions. This was after COVID-19 cases had been diagnosed among residents. Portugal has taken a more proactive measure by issuing temporary resident permits to all asylum seekers until the summer to allow them to try and find safe work and accommodations  and to escape high-risk institutionalization.

The government has been issuing all kinds of directions to keep people away from crowded environments. Why has it not closed refugee reception centers or at least taken steps to make them less crowded? It would seem to be quite easy to do this as the cost to keep a person in the reception center is on average 55 euros a day. There are certainly many landlords who would rent a room to someone for much less than  1650 euros a month, even in high rent locations such as Helsinki not to mention hostels and B n B’s. This would likely incur enough savings to arrange counselling and nursing services offsite.

These refugee centers have become identified with suicidal behaviour and other mental health problems and there is no need to allow things to get even worse by making them locations for spreading the epidemic as well. Improving the living situation of asylum seekers would not only benefit the residents but protect the society as a whole as well.

While we are on the subject of protecting people during the epidemic and particularly old people who are the group most at risk there have been other measures taken by the government involving non-citizens which put this into question. The ban on travel between Estonia and Finland comes to mind here. At the same time travel for work reasons between Sweden and Finland was allowed to continue. The latter mainly involves travel by Finns to work in Sweden.

The travel for work reasons between Finland and Estonia mainly involved Estonians coming to work in Finland. Many Estonians work in personal care services for seniors living alone at home as will as in homes providing care to the elderly. This situation has developed because it is hard to find workers in this field in Finland. Now many elderly persons are left without adequate care or have been placed in the hands of inexperienced Finnish substitutes. This situation could probably have been avoided by taking sensible precautionary measures such as testing the returning Estonians as there has continuously been unused testing capacity.

As the epidemic continues the whole idea of closing borders will seem more and more xenophobic. Persons who have recovered from the disease and developed immunity, as well as those tested as healthy, could  be admitted as well as allowed to travel abroad to carry out important business to help the economy to recover.

We will need international cooperation more than ever after this epidemic to address the many-facted environmental crises facing everyone, of which this epidemic is only one manifestation.