Finland sent its specimens to Korea, anything wrong with the country?

[COVID-19 Responses in Northern Europe ②] Finland now, No. 1 of the UN’s ‘World Happiness Report’

등록 2020.04.09 19:34수정 2020.04.20 13:45
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Northern European countries are always at the top of the UN’s annual ‘World Happiness Report.’ One of the reasons is the ‘thick trust’ toward their governments and the communities. How are the Nordic countries responding to the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19? We report the cases of Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.[편집자말]

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) C-17 Globemaster III is on standby at Incheon International Airport on March 27 afternoon to depart for Romania. The NATO aircraft had left for Romania on the 25th with the first supply of protective gear, and visited Incheon International Airport again to transport the second supply of protective gear and testing kits. ⓒ Yonhap News Agency/EPA

I have been living in Helsinki, the capital of Finland for 15 years. I am raising two children who are in the third and sixth grades of elementary school. Lately, I've been asked this question frequently by my acquaintances in Korea.

 "Is Finland okay?"

Recently, my Korean acquaintances ask that question after they heard the news that Finland sent its specimens by Finnair to test COVID-19 in Korea.

"Isn't Finland even able to test COVID-19? What's wrong with the happiest country in the world? The Finnish people's dissatisfaction with the government is going to hit the ceiling."

To begin with the conclusion, Finnish people tense up, but there is no major psychological disturbance or confusion yet on this matter. It's because they trust the government and the health authorities. According to Helsingin Sanomat, daily newspaper's poll on April 5, 84% of Finnish people are satisfied with the prime ministar's action concerning COVID-19 

Despite the Blockade of the Capital City, 84% Are Satisfied with COVID-19 Responses

Finland took first place in the UN's annual 'World Happiness Report' for three consecutive years from 2018 to 2020. Denmark, another Nordic country which had mainly been ranked first, had to stay in second place yielding the top to Finland. Korea ranked 61st out of 153 countries this year in the UN report, down seven places from last year. The UN World Happiness Report comprehensively examines the social safety net, credibility among community members, etc.

On April 5, Finland's THL (National Institute for Health and Welfare) announced 1,927 confirmed cases and 28 deaths of COVID-19. Finland has a population of 5.5 million, about one-tenth of Korea's population, and the numbers show that the death rate in Finland is slightly higher than that of Korea (183 deaths as of April 5). But, Finland is doing pretty well compared to the 179 deaths in Denmark, which has a similar population. The average age of the deaths in Finland is 84. Since Finland is doubling or tripling its testing capacity, the number of confirmed cases is expected to increase soon. Medical experts expect the peak will be late April or early May.

Finland, like many other European countries, is now engaged in the social-distancing movement strictly. Since the Finnish government declared a state of emergency in the country on March 16, all educational institutions have been closed and meetings of more than 10 people have been banned. From March 30, the controls were further strengthened, and all restaurants and bars are completely closed by the end of May.

The area around Helsinki Cathedral, where tourists always flock, is deserted due to COVID-19. ⓒ Bomi Kwon

What's symbolic is the blockade of Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Helsinki is the 'happiest city in the world' the UN chose this year. However, when 70% of the confirmed cases came out in the metropolitan area including Helsinki, the government blocked the metropolitan area (Uusimaa Region), which has 1.67 million people, from March 28. People in the metropolitan area tend to have cottages in countryside. The blockade is imposed because if they moved to their cottages in the small towns to avoid COVID-19, it would cause serious problems in the rural areas that lack medical facilities and equipment.

Finnish people are following the government's 'social-distancing' policy quite well. In the past, we used to shop at the supermarket 3 or 4 times a week, but now we do that only once a week, and customers keep their distance of more than 1meter in front of the checkout counter. Helsinki now reminds me of an empty city during the summer vacation season. According to my acquaintance working at IKEA, the furniture sales, such as chairs and desk, have increased because people work from home. Since family members spend a lot of time together in limited places all day, they even joke that they will wait and see whether the divorce rate will increase or the birth rate will increase.

It was a Private Hospital that Requested the COVID-19 Test in Korea

In Finland, if a citizen has respiratory symptoms suspected of being infected with COVID-19, he or she does not go directly to the hospital, but calls the number given by the government and follows the instructions of the medical institution just like Korea does. Finland has a good public healthcare system, so most of the medical expenses, including surgery, are almost free. If you can't afford to pay some of it, the agency in charge of social welfare checks your situation and exempts you in full.

However, promptness is the problem. In public hospitals, knee surgery and back surgery often require more than six months if the patient is not in a very critical condition. If you don't want to wait for such a long time, you can use a private hospital. Of course, private hospitals are very expensive. In the case of gastroscopy, you can get it free in the public hospital, but you have to pay about 1 million won (1,000 USD) in the private hospital. People tend to use private hospitals to use rapid services rather than service quality.

Public and private hospitals also cooperate with each other. If a doctor at a public hospital thinks the patient needs to be treated urgently and determines that the treatment is more effective if it is done at a private hospital, the doctor sends the patient to a private hospital. In this case, the treatment expense is the same as a public hospital. In other words, the state pays for the treatment and provides prompt treatments.

But when it comes to the COVID-19 test, since it's not a treatment but an infection test, you have to pay 195 euros (260,000 KRW) out of your pocket even though you get it from a public hospital because the state doesn't support it. However, since the hospital gives the chance to those with severe symptoms of COVID-19 first, those with mild symptoms can't get the test at their will even if they want to.

So people who want to get the COVID-19 test quickly use private hospitals. Private hospitals charge you 249 euros (about 330,000 KRW) per test. One of the private hospitals is Mehiläinen(Healthcare and Social Service Company), which appeared on the news recently.

Mehiläinen mainly contracts with large companies and provides medical services to their employees. This time, Mehilinen and 10 major companies sent their specimens to Korea for the rapid test of COVID-19.

What do Finnish people think about that? Would they regard it as the collapse of Finland's medical system or the inability of the Finnish government to respond to COVID-19? Or wouldn't they complain about inequality, saying, "Who gets the test early and who gets it late?"

Finnish people calmly say, "We trust the government, and it's not a medical system breakdown."

For the last three days, I've called about 10 Finnish people I know. They are surprisingly calm. They still trust their government firmly. Why is that? There are several reasons for that.

First, Finnish people have long experience and are accustomed to urgently providing medical care only if the patient's condition is very poor. There have been demands for more tests, but complaints about it are not so great.

Second, Mehiläinen, which sent their specimens to Korea by mobilizing Finnair, is a private medical healthcare company, so the citizens step back and watch quietly. Some believe there could be a commercial intention behind increasing the number of tests to be carried out overseas.

Third, the Mehiläinen case has not been interpreted as 'the medical system breakdown' in Finland. Since 'social-distancing' is being practiced properly, it doesn't overload the hospital facilities, and they think it's manageable. In particular, the death toll is 28, which is not large yet.

Fourth, the citizens understand that this COVID-19 incident is a very exceptional situation. So even if there is limited testing due to the lack of test equipment or capacity, they do not blame it for the government's lack of coping skills. They are looking at the situation based on the assumption that it is an extremely exceptional situation no country has predicted since World War II. So, Finnish people don't put the blame on the government for its lack of coping skills or administrative capability.

75% of the land is the forest... Eco-friendly self-quarantining is available

Finland is a country of mountains, lakes, and seas. Citizens enjoying sunbathing at the port of Helsinki last summer. ⓒ Oh Yeon-ho

Although I've been living in Finland for 15 years, such Finnish perceptions are still very strange and fascinating to me. Based on the words of the 10 Finnish people who spoke on the phone with me, I have summarized the historical and cultural background of the perceptions in two main ways.

First, their historical experiences value unity rather than division.

Finland was ruled by Sweden for nearly 700 years, and Russia for more than 100 years. After gaining independence in the 20th century, Finland also suffered several major wars. Based on this historical background, it is traditionally recognized that they must be united together in action rather than dividing one another in an argument. Therefore, the perception that 'problem-solving comes first before criticism and evaluation' has become a culture in Finland.

Second, they trust their government on a normal basis.

Currently, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is a 34-year-old young woman who is the youngest prime minister, but she is recognized for her leadership and communication skills. People tend to accept her honest apology for not quarantine and segregation of suspected patients at the airports in the early stage. It's because the Finnish government has been trusted by the public for the highest level of transparency in the world.

The COVID-19 crisis in Finland has not yet passed its most dangerous period. So it's too early to evaluate it as it is now. However, what is clear is that there is no panic among the people regarding the medical system and trust in the government is still maintained. It seems that they are overcoming their stress by doing eco-friendly 'self-quarantine'. One Finnish person says that they can do it because there are many forests in Finland. 75% of the land is forest, and it has 180,000 lakes.

"It's good to have forests everywhere. Helsinki has forests in many places and even around my house. What a blessing it is to be able to do self-quarantining in such an eco-friendly environment!"

Finnish people are enduring the COVID-19 crisis with such positive thinking and patience.

Written by Bomi Kwon .
Translated by Youngae Joanna Kim.
* This report is the English version of OhmyNews Korean article. If you want to read the original article in Korean, click here!
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