Quarantine diaries | Vaasa: Finland’s spirit of ‘sisu’
Even as the mood darkens, Finns are counting on their spirit of stoic determination and tenacity to get through the ongoing pandemic
When two paramedics in hazmat suits came in an ambulance to carry an elderly patient from his home after he showed symptoms of being infected by the coronavirus, the old man thought two astronauts had come to take him away. Although Finland has recorded (at the time of writing) more than 600 cases and one death due to the devastating virus, the small coastal city of Vaasa that I live in has largely been uninfected—just one official case of an infected person.
Vaasa has a population of around 67,000 but it has two universities and serves as the Finnish headquarters of a couple of large engineering companies—notable among them are Wärtsilä and ABB Ltd. A few weeks ago, most of the companies had their employees working from home; schools were closed but students got online lessons from their teachers. Just like in many other countries, Finland closed its borders with neighbouring countries; flights and train services were cancelled; and citizens returning home had to be in fortnight-long self-quarantine.
Then, last week, the bars and restaurants started closing down one by one. Vaasa’s central square, usually fairly busy if the sun is out, lay deserted; the supermarkets and stores kept running out of things: Like everywhere else, people were buying large amounts of toilet paper, meat, milk and eggs. An old bar, Wanha Mestari (it means Old Champion), remained open, though, and last weekend, some of the regulars hung around there sipping their beers and cracking sinister jokes about what was going on in the world.
Last Wednesday, many Finnish companies announced lay-offs of large numbers of employees. Finland’s social welfare system is efficient and generous and people, especially those who are unionized, are protected when they find themselves jobless. Even so, the mood has darkened even as winter ends and spring begins. One think tank, Etla Economic Research, estimates that the Finnish economy could shrink by 5% this year owing to the impact of the virus. And the Finnish central bank, Bank of Finland, predicts that the economy will slide into recession.
It helps that Finland has a small population—less than six million people in a country where the average population per square kilometre is just 19. That’s one of the reasons why the pandemic has not raged across the country. Moreover, Finland’s healthcare systems are efficient and aggressive testing has helped detect cases in the early stages. The three deaths that happened in the Helsinki region last week were, like in many other places, that of elderly people in high-risk groups.
With shops, restaurants and bars closed, Vaasa, never a bustling town, looks completely deserted. Last Sunday, I took a walk with a friend through the city’s streets; it was a crisp and sunny day, the sort that usually brings out Finns (who are not used to getting generous amounts of sun) on to the streets and into the woods. But we hardly saw anyone outdoors.
Last week, when Finland’s President, Sauli Niinistö, announced a state of emergency and urged Finns to avoid large gatherings and unnecessary social contact, he said: “Our way of life will change, we all need each other. Of course, I believe that we will get through this. But there will be suffering too." In Finland there is a concept called sisu. It is not easily translatable but it means a spirit of stoic determination and tenacity of purpose. Finns are hardy people and their history has been one of wars and struggles. And most Finns pride themselves on their spirit of sisu.
Also last week came the news that Finland was again ranked as the happiest country in the world, a position it had also enjoyed last year. In the World Happiness Report, the UN-affiliated research network that does the survey attributed Finland’s reliable and extensive welfare benefits, low corruption and well-functioning democracy and state institutions as reasons for its high score on the list. Finnish citizens also enjoy a high degree of autonomy and freedom. But this time the report came at an ironic juncture. The mood in Finland, as everywhere in the world, is far from happy. It is not so much the fear that the virus will spread but the economic and social impact that it has had and will continue to have in the coming months.
Sanjoy Narayan is former editor-in-chief, Hindustan Times, and Lounge columnist.