Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Estonia’s Digital Solutions to COVID-19
Estonia’s Digital Solutions to COVID-19

Estonia’s Digital Solutions to COVID-19

 According to Johns Hopkins University, Estonia’s novel coronavirus numbers have generally stayed similar to those of its neighbors in the European Union. With an infection number so far at just above 2,000 it is slightly above the rates of nearby Latvia and Lithuania, but well below Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. By the end of July the death toll remained below 70, and with over 2,000 cases had recovered. However, in addition to its relatively low coronavirus numbers compared to those of other European nations, Estonia appears to have also experienced one of the lowest levels of panic amidst the pandemic. To fight the virus, Estonia has deployed familiar techniques: lockdowns, testing, emptying of intensive care wards, human contact-tracing, and government-mandated quarantine. However, Estonia’s coronavirus response is most distinguishable from its global counterparts because of its digital capabilities and “solutions” to the virus.

As Marsha Gessen explained in her recent the New Yorker column, even prior to the pandemic outbreak, Estonia was already known for its unparalleled digitalized society and e-governance: “ninety-nine percent of households have broadband internet connection, and the education system is a world leader in developing and using electronic technologies, this system has proved to be fully functional even in a pandemic lockdown.” So, it was only expected that the country would have a  “digital solution” to the pandemic.  The low-key information system the Estonian government has designed enables medical facilities and government officials to share and review COVID-19 patient data in real-time, significantly reducing the amount of typical bureaucratic red tape. National healthcare and medical facilities represent just one area of Estonia’s famously agile e-governance system. Estonia is known for its fully paperless governance; people vote online and use digital prescriptions, and a single piece of I.D. securely stores each Estonian’s personal information. Thus going into the pandemic, Estonia was already well-equipped to avoid face-to-face human contact in carrying out many of the interactions in public services, healthcare, education, and social welfare sectors.

The pandemic conditions have brought on a number of other initiatives, digital solutions, and platforms that have been utilized in combating COVID-19. One of these is known as Koroonantest. Launched by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Koroonantest is a quick questionnaire that lets users assess whether they are displaying common symptoms of the virus, which “allows potential patients to assess their risk, get some much-needed answers about what to do if they are at risk, and helps the Health Board make predictions about the spread of the virus in Estonia.” Another tele-medic initiative is Viveo Health, an app that “allows patients to quickly connect with health care professionals to get a diagnosis, a specialist’s referral, or e-prescription via a video call.” Lastly, citizens can stay up to date with a current, and transparent, overview of the daily COVID-19 situation by Kooroonakaart, a virtual map that is updated daily with data from Estonian Health Board, Estonian Land Board, and demographic data from Statistics Estonia. It also provides a “transparent view of the number of administered tests, the number of patients in treatment, and an estimate of active cases, which can further be broken down by county.” By modernizing their medical services, Estonia has demonstrated how technological innovation can not only reinforce social-distancing practices, keep people out of public settings, and prevent infected people from putting themselves and others at risk, but be a crucial ally in times of crises. 

Another approach to solving the crisis has been one that put all Estonians to work. By March 12, Prime Minister Juri Ratas declared a state of emergency, closing their borders, shuttering schools, and banning entertainment, leisure business, and mass gathering from operating. Within the next night, two companies, Garage48 and Accelerate Estonia, in cooperation with the government, launched a forty-eight-hour idea-collection session, called “Hack the Virus.” The competition offered five finalists startup funds so that the ideas could be implemented right away.

This proposal included legislative changes and an online platform for organizing the swaps. According to e-Estonia,  “these numerous programs, explicitly tied to Estonia’s identity as a startup nation, are exercises of the imagination, not merely in reacting to the present crisis but in shaping the future.” Hence, Estonia’s digital state has enabled life in the country to continue, largely uninterrupted. For instance, compared to countries where bureaucracy has been forced to grind to a halt, Estonia stands in stark contrast, as its governance systems remain largely unaffected. 

The government has faced some backlash regarding these technological programs and an “ethos” concern as some doctors and medical personnel have criticized how they spent more time looking at screens than working with patients because they were constantly putting information online and looking at the data sets. It took the Estonian government about two weeks to prepare the platform where data sets could be added by healthcare workers and testing facilities. The critics have also pointed out that the approach to testing for COVID-19 was not clear and consistent enough from the beginning.

On July 1, 60 countries from around the world gathered for the launch of the Global Declaration on the Digital Response to COVID-19. This was an initiative co-sponsored by Estonia and Singapore, aimed to “empower societies towards further digitalization and emerge from this [COVID-19 pandemic] and future crises stronger and better equipped.” In the digital conference, Estonia promised to aid global digitalization amidst the pandemic crisis through healthcare, education, security in the digital space, modern e-governance, accessible connectivity, human rights and internet freedom, digital literacy, refocusing resources, e-commerce, and strong international cooperation. In addition, Estonia has also recently started to work within the EU on a global platform to help “accelerate innovation and a more extensive uptake of digital solutions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.” 

 While the emergency situation officially ended on May 18, some restrictions regarding restaurant capacity, leisure business, and entertainment operation have remained in place. Public events including movies, performances, concerts, conferences, fairs, festivals, and sporting competitions may resume provided facilities are filled to no more than 50% capacity.  The Estonian Government has taken several measures to prevent the propagation of the virus as they have gradually reopened the country, such as limiting events to 100 participants indoors and 100 participants outdoors until the beginning of July, after which events will be limited to 500 participants indoors and 1000 participants outdoors.  Due to government proactivity, action, and initiative with efforts like border lockdowns and state-issued quarantine, as one of the world’s most advanced digital societies, Estonia has been able to recover, both socially and economically, far more rapidly compared to its Baltic and other European counterparts, gradually bringing industry, entertainment, and the nation back to normalcy.