March 19, 2020
For many years to come, scientists will analyze how the governments around the world responded to the global spread of COVID-19. Some may even say that the lack of response or poor quality and late timing to take crucial measures caused an epidemic to become a pandemic. As a political scientist, I am fascinated to compare rhetorics of world leaders, who merely a week ago, denied or downplayed the gravity of the situation and then suddenly switched to a complete different discourse. Because of that, a huge mistrust in governments is rising, and it will have consequences to our political systems. But as a citizen of planet Earth I am asking myself what can be done in this time to make situation a little bit better.
The most frequent answer is “stay at home.” This simple measure has so many meanings inside – stay at home and do not spread the virus; stay at home and show support to medical staff and rescuers; stay at home even if you are feeling ok – there are reports of symptom-free virus cases that are still contagious. I am proud to say that my fellow Lithuanians have found many more ways of doing right and much needed things while also abiding to the rules of quarantine.
Since March 16, Lithuania has been under quarantine – schools and universities are closed, public sector switched to working remotely, with most of the private sector doing the same. Places of public gathering – theatres, cinemas, bars, restaurants, gyms and libraries – are closed for a period of two weeks. These precautions are being taken even though Lithuania has a relatively low number of confirmed cases – 41 as of March 19. However, under the official quarantine laws, a different reality exists. There have been many reports about the lack of protective gear, tests and other supplies that are needed in hospitals. Also, many businesses had to close suddenly, facing uncertainty or even bankruptcy. With child care centers and kindergartens closed, even the front line workers (doctors, emergency workers) did not have a place to leave their kids. Old people already living with little support became even more isolated. All these issues – real issues of real people – were ignored by the government that blindly stated that help is coming and we should not worry and everything is under control, while dozen of posts on Facebook from emergency workers stated the opposite. And even if the government took necessary steps to grant future relief and compensation package to help revive economy after the quarantine, in many sectors, actions are needed here and now.
And then, just in a matter of days, citizens started their own response to these problems. They did not wait for the government to act, or rather stopped waiting, and they took initiative into their own hands. Just 36 hours ago, an online TV, Laisves TV (translated as Freedom TV), launched a campaign asking people to donate money that will be used to buy much-needed protection gear for the hospitals. They were simultaneously researching the global markets, trying to get these supplies and ensure that they are transported to Lithuania as soon as possible – maybe even in the beginning of next week. These supplies are crucial for protecting doctors and nurses in response centers all around Lithuania. More than 150,000 euros was collected in 24 hours. Other companies and entities (for example, Rotary Lithuania) are joining their efforts and raising funds to buy and deliver things that hospitals need.
People are also turning their support to those who are socially vulnerable. Donation campaigns to ensure that the elderly and children from adverse backgrounds continue to receive hot meals are running with tens of thousands of euros already donated. The food industry that was forced to close services are donating unused food to food banks and other charities that continue to serve people in need. It is easy to find them now, as someone took initiative and used open data to make a map showing areas with the highest concentration of elderly.
I am especially proud of the private sector has shown a great example of solidarity in the face of crisis. Construction companies are donating their respirators to the hospitals, businesses are buying lung ventilators and delivering them to the hospitals. Private clinics are offering medical machinery they own to public hospitals, as well as opening the wards for sick patients. In the face of COVID-19, everyone is treated equally. Private companies walk the extra mile in the redistribution of their resources and time – some start making affordable hand sanitizers; others redirect their money for the advertisement to Lithuanian media in order to help it survive and continue reporting the truth.
There is also some ingenuity and sense of adaptation in the air as AirB&B turns their flats to temporary quarantine wards, offering these for free to health systems workers who are afraid of spreading the virus to their families. They can rest in safe and isolated spaces, or use the flats to quarantine more people than hospitals can accommodate. Shared car companies are lowering fees and encouraging people to use a car (with hand sanitizer installed inside) instead of public transport. Even fashion designers are converting their skills to make more face masks. Help and initiatives come from all kinds of sectors, trying to contribute to the public good – for example, cyber currency “farmers” disconnect their servers from “mining” and use them to assist global efforts to analyze the virus (folding@home).
Since quarantine, bars and restaurants are closed for public, with some continuing to provide take-out services. People are choosing to buy a home-delivered meal instead of going to the store and buying more beans and rice, because ordering a home delivery can help restaurants survive. But many more in the catering industry are using their skills to help others. Medical staff can get coffee for free in gas stations and coffee houses, while restaurants are making food and delivering for free to many professional workers and volunteers working at the hospitals and boarder control posts. There is a growing network of volunteers – mostly young people – who are taking personal risk assisting others. Volunteers are needed to deliver food, to help with information and in many cases, to meet incoming passengers in the airports and assist in screening process. Lithuania is screening every incoming passenger.
The cultural sector has been hit especially hard – shows and tours were canceled, concert and other performances postponed. But despite the closures, the cultural sector was one of the first to respond by offering shows and movies online. Libraries and publishing houses followed by opening their digital collections to the public. As all schools are closed, some innovative ways to continue education were mastered – a new TV show for children with math, chemistry, languages and even sports taught by famous Lithuanians is running on the national TV. Parents also have a wide range of free-of-charge online services to choose from while engaging their children in educational activities that are fun and instructive. And children love it! Even after school activities switch to teaching online in just a couple of days – now my two-year-old godson has his Yamaha lessons at his living room and is learning how to play drums using a bucket. Talented theatre actors post videos showing that many tools at home can be used and reused, and we are just discovering that. One can even have a gym in a living room. Many options – free of charge – are offered by the gyms, yoga studios and even professional athletes. You can continue or even start exercising at home with dozens of free tutorials that were prepared by self-quarantined trainers.
In the times of uncertainty spiritual needs are not forgotten. Psychologists and therapists are offering free sessions online, while doctors created their own online platform that allows them to consult patients and answer their questions online. Even PR agencies are joining the efforts in advising institutions on crisis communication. Whatever skills people have, they are adapting them to the current needs, having frontline workers as a priority in mind. To ensure that they can focus on their actual work, private kindergartens are offering free-of-charge services to take care of their kids.
All of these initiatives have been registered during first four days of national quarantine. Many more are not yet publicized, namely because people do not want to advertise. And even in cases of failures, there is a supportive tone in the society, reminding that we are strong.
On March 11, Lithuania celebrated 30 years since it regained independence in 1990. Together with two other Baltic states – Latvia and Estonia – we have become a success story of the transition to democracy and liberal economy. Nevertheless, this amazing public unity and response to crisis that we are witnessing in less than a week is a fruit of civic society that grew from the seed was planted 30 years ago. Democracy and freedom is blossoming in these acts of Lithuanian citizens, united in the face of global pandemics. They are wiser, faster, kinder and more effective than any government. And they give me hope, that one day, the government will live up to its citizens.