Rasa Juknevičienė: COVID-19 lessons learned

2020-03-30 | COVID-19

‘Lessons learned’, as they say in the army. When I held the office of Minister of Defence of Lithuania, along with the commanders and other military representatives, we always discussed and outlined what lessons had been learned following each extensive training campaign or project, Rasa Juknevičienė, a Member of the European Parliament of the European People’s Party Group wrote.

Therefore, the purpose of this article is not to blame anyone, but to encourage us to look at ourselves so that we carry on working with greater awareness of what has happened in the past and what should be improved in the future.

COVID-19 has only just begun raging in Lithuania. Everything is still ahead, including new viruses. Thus, truly learning the lessons that have already been experienced from the pandemic is vital.

Here they are:

1. No-one in Europe was prepared. No-one. Notwithstanding this, the EU will not experience the apocalypses forecasted by the Eurasian ideologist, Aleksandr Dugin.

2. Most of us, including myself, considered it a Chinese problem on the other side of the world. Not paying attention, as usual.

3. The current facts show that the Lithuanian Ministry of Health didn’t predict the pandemic.  Lithuania refused to join the EU’s procurement of additional protection measures in February. Now they are making excuses, saying that buying millions of protection units was not appropriate to the situation at the time. Did the procurement require millions of units? In fact, nobody considered the threat seriously and therefore refused to buy anything. It would be understandable if they sincerely confessed to their error.

4. The outbreak in Italy was also not considered serious. The EU was not quick with strict measures. Honestly, it was unexpected for all of us. Ironically, in the EPP political group, Italy was the one that most worried about the spread of the virus from Africa to Europe.

5. Anti-European forces proclaim apocalypses for the EU. Such a scenario is actively promoted by the Eurasian ‘philosopher’ Aleksandr Dugin. The most interesting fact is that the lack of EU leadership is noticed by politicians who are against the EU. They should be aware that health issues fall under the competence of individual member states. The EU’s central powers are rather limited in this case. What about borders and Schengen? Borders were closed because this was necessary. However, the EU will not collapse. Sure, there will be a lot of discussions about what has happened and what the reaction was, but this is normal.

6. In Lithuania, from the very beginning of the threat, everybody was afraid of panic more than the virus itself. Panic was considered to be more dangerous than the virus and its outcome. Now looking back, we should admit that this was a mistake. Panic is harmful, but an underestimation of the scope of the threat is even more damaging. For two weeks, the Lithuanian people were fed with the information about a single infected woman in Šiauliai, while the real situation was different. No worrying news calmed down people’s minds, and they did not consider the threat with due urgency. Even the government was calm. They didn’t make any forecasts and didn’t think about investing in protection measures and equipment.

7. The most important lesson should be learnt from the biggest mistake—tests. The Lithuanian Ministry of Health had all the information they needed two weeks ago, when people arriving from infected areas were not duly controlled and, the virus spread making people with a fever visit their family doctors whilst the latter didn’t have any protection measures or the opportunity to be tested for COVID-19. As of 21 March, Latvia has performed 1,241 tests which is almost the same amount that was performed by the Lithuanian Minister of Health, Aurelijus Veryga, since the start of the epidemic according to BNS. Up until last week, tests were vital for the protection of healthcare institutions. Now some of them have become virus clusters. For more than two weeks, Veryga publicly argued that tests are not so important, and was even proud that Lithuania was managing the situation better than any other country in Europe. However, battling without the proper intelligence makes no sense, this is obvious. Tests are the only, and the most important means of intelligence.

8. Not telling the truth. This is the problem of the Lithuanian government, which regretfully looks rather like the Kremlin, and that is much worse than a temporary lack of protection measures. Crises require trust. Complete trust. Everyone can make mistakes, but the worse thing is when they are concealed, or when pride does not allow one to admit that they have made a mistake. Flu cases were already on the increase a week ago.

According to the National Public Health Centre under the Lithuanian Ministry of Health, as of 16 March, Lithuania has been recording more cases of the flu. From 9 March to 15 March, most of the cases were recorded in the Alytus region and the least in Klaipėda. During this week, a total of 1,895 new flu cases were recorded in Lithuania, up from 1,531 the week before. The mortality rate also increased. Did the flu condition it? This might become clear only by knowing what kind of diagnostics were used.

9. Leadership. This is the most important issue. Condolences and nice words are fine, but not enough. Leaders should not be afraid, and should not be thinking about their next term in office or their own ratings. People are waiting for real, not pretend leadership.

10. Democracy. Obviously, you will find the subject, not a priority, if you ask people about their primary expectations today. However, it should not be considered so unimportant forever. The opposition should not be scared about warning people and asking a difficult question about mistakes that have been made. Even the prime minister’s testing for coronavirus, conducted in contradiction to the State’s testing laws, should be addressed.

11. Media. Now more than ever, the media is the main cornerstone of Lithuania’s democracy. Its journalists can be found on the front line working hard to report the most important news on the subject. A slowdown of the economy will result in a challenge to the media business as well. Thus, governmental support may become an incentive for the media to report their truth. Social media may also serve well in this situation, although we should always be a way of fake news.

12. Confrontation. In situations such as this, confrontation is inevitable. The pandemic will especially affect how we judge those who came from abroad. In villages and small towns, people keep an eye on their neighbours, and this is good. However, it may also provoke fear throughout the community, and this may become dangerous, something that needs to be addressed by all local leaders, communities, and elderships.

13. Disinformation. We have already seen how it operates. The opportunities for conspiracy theories are better than ever before. The current situation is a sort of real-time training for various experts in a hybrid war.

The situation is a serious challenge to the government, but it is also a challenge for everyone who has had to interrupt their daily business. And when a minister says that we should keep our mouths closed as we sit at home while they are working, I remember that we are not that far away from Belarus.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of good things to remember. We already owe a massive amount of thanks to businesses and volunteers for the incredible support that they have been giving. And of course, the biggest thanks go to all the medical staff in the country, my friends and loved ones are among them.