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Lessons from Coronavirus: Is Finland’s Preparedness as Stellar as its Reputation?

Finland is famous for its preparedness. But as the pandemic has revealed, the country’s contingency planning needs further attention.

Finland was praised in the US media as the prepper nation of the Nordics. It has been stockpiling emergency supplies since the Cold War. So, as the coronavirus struck, it was the envy of its neighbours, assumed to be well supplied with medical and survival gear. Yet, it soon became obvious that the preparations were not enough.

As of 6 August, there have only been 7,532 reported cases and 331 deaths in Finland. Most emergency restrictions have been relaxed and Finland has joined the international travel bubble. The government lifted the state of emergency on 15 June 2020. Although this was the first time the Emergency Powers Act legislation was used, the country has done well in keeping the virus under control.

When coronavirus hit, Finland reacted effectively. The country went into lockdown before the virus had caused any deaths. Finland has also pioneered interesting strategies to combat the virus by naming social media influencers as critical actors in the fight against it. What has been gaining the most attention internationally is the country’s preparedness, which has been Finland’s key priority in national emergencies since the Cold War.

Not Prepared Enough?

The true extent of Finland’s preparedness was tested by coronavirus. At first, the government was convinced that the emergency stockpiles were going to be sufficient to meet the increasing need. Finland’s National Emergency Supply Agency (NESA) opened their emergency storage units for the first time since the Second World War. However, it was soon realised that some of the masks were out of date.

Although the country has impressive stockpiles of essential goods, such as food and fuel, it became clear that it lacked personal protective equipment (PPE) to meet the increased demand. The country that had been praised as the most prepared Nordic nation ended up in the same situation as its neighbours. Finland had to enter the increasingly competitive global market for PPE.

The preparedness plans, including the Emergency Powers Act and Finland’s general approach to ‘total defence’, were specifically designed to tackle all sorts of threats, not just war. The plans are supposed to have been updated and implemented in collaboration with the private and third sector. However, the private sector’s participation was largely expected to be driven by shared and self-interest, and there are not many enforcement mechanisms. The pandemic has tested this relationship.

In March, NESA spent millions of euros on Chinese masks that did not meet the European standards for hospital use. In April, it ordered masks from two Finnish individuals. The first order turned out to be inadequate and the person suspected of selling the masks was arrested, and the second order was cancelled since it was suspected to be connected to money laundering. An investigation conducted for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment revealed that NESA failed to conduct appropriate supplier due diligence and quality controls. The National Bureau of Investigation suspects that two NESA employees committed crimes when buying facemasks. Two of the agency’s management group employees were relieved from their duties, and the CEO resigned. The relationship between the government and private sector proved tricky.

Identifying Shortcomings

This crisis has revealed weak points in Finland’s preparedness. During RUSI’s third Corona Lessons webinar featuring Finland’s Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo and Director-General for Rescue Services Kimmo Kohvakka discussed the country’s successes and failures in tackling the pandemic. When asked what the country could have done differently, one of the answers was better stockpiles and Finnish production supply chains. Although the discussion in the Finnish media has surrounded the lack of PPE, the government does not necessarily need to stock more facemasks for the next crisis. Threats are becoming increasingly diverse and cannot always be remedied with stockpiling. In 2013, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs was hacked and, since 2014, Finland has been increasingly targeted by fake news campaigns and propaganda.

Is stockpiling – for which Finland has become known – an applicable strategy to improve societal resilience? When facing increasingly uncertain threats such as climate change, predicting the physical needs in each situation becomes challenging. Instead of stockpiling materials, Finland should stockpile capacity. For future emergencies, we would do better in focusing on improving the cooperation between the private and public sectors and training society in contingency responses.

Capacity building for future emergencies means investing in people. The Finnish Defence Forces organise courses that bring military and civilian leaders together to learn about the ‘total defence’ approach. A third of the participants come from the private sector. The aims of these courses are to improve cooperation between different sectors in emergencies and provide networking opportunities for people from various professional backgrounds. The caveat is that one must be selected to partake in these courses, which accommodate 50 people at a time. Only those that are thought to be in a key position to protect society can be selected, and the courses have been critiqued as elitist. Indeed, the content of the courses is confidential.

The more diverse threats become, the more necessary it is to train wider parts of society in contingencies. Coronavirus has brought our attention to key workers from many sectors, ranging from those in healthcare to postal services and transportation. Instead of only training sectors of society that either specialise in contingency responses or are deemed important enough, countries would do better to extend preparedness to the whole of society.

The morals of the story? Capacity is a better measure of preparedness than stockpiles of supplies. And, regardless of Finland’s reputation, the country can improve its resilience by learning the lessons from coronavirus and making its total defence more inclusive.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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