Latvia moved quickly to contain the covid-19 pandemic and has managed to keep its overall number of cases low throughout most of the crisis. Effective government action and public compliance assisted this – but an early lifting of restrictions meant that infections had spiralled by the autumn and intra-Baltic cooperation at the height of the pandemic has now collapsed.
Four main actions contributed to Latvia’s success. Firstly, the country’s rapid response. On 11 March, the World Health Organization announced that covid-19 had reached pandemic proportions. While other EU member states hesitated, the next day Latvia had declared a state of emergency.
Secondly, Latvia managed to adapt to the evolving crisis by seeking practical and practicable solutions to problems as and when they emerged. For instance, the country faced insufficient funding for medicine and so initially lacked personal protective equipment. The government resolved the issue in early April by establishing the State Central Reserve Procurement Group within the Ministry of Defence, which has experience in large-scale procurement. After clearing initial hurdles and keeping the number of cases low, Latvia was able to provide medical supplies to other countries, such as Italy and Spain, and material assistance to Greece and Bulgaria, as well as its immediate neighbours Lithuania and Estonia. ECFR’s European Solidarity Tracker records this and other acts of intra-European solidarity.
Thirdly, Latvia made a concerted effort to counter disinformation and misinformation. The novelty of the virus naturally meant that knowledge was scarce about its effects on human health, the ways in which it spreads, and how best to contain it. So disinformation and misinformation of both domestic and foreign origin flourished. In response, the government, in cooperation with public and private media, launched a massive information campaign. It also made additional funding available to the media to, for example, cover overtime pay for journalists and promote accurate reporting on the pandemic. Fact-checking channels regularly published articles debunking misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories about covid-19. In parallel, the Latvian government devoted great attention to public resilience and mental health. Latvians’ mental wellbeing was continuously monitored by medical specialists. Individuals could communicate with medical experts at any time, free of charge.
Fourthly, and finally, important to the response was the enforcement of physical-distancing requirements and enabling of day-to-day activities by alternative means. For example, the government moved to distance-learning already at a time when schools and universities in many other countries remained open. Supermarkets were closed on weekends, although most commercial companies could continue working with essential workers. Latvia’s approach from early on was “test, track, and isolate”, as declared by the prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš. Like South Korea and Germany, Latvia chose a rather ‘aggressive’ diagnostic path, establishing cooperation between public and private laboratories, trying to trace every case of coronavirus. As a result of this approach Latvia has one of the highest rates of coronavirus testing per capita.
Social and geographic features particular to Latvia also came into play. As Latvians tend not to hug or kiss when greeting, observing distancing did not pose a cultural challenge. Latvians tended to take the situation very seriously: streets and public transport were largely deserted. In addition Latvia conducted the country’s largest repatriation programme, bringing about 8,000 citizens home in the space of a month, which was a popular move and boosted the government’s standing.
Moreover, Latvia has physical Schengen borders only with Estonia and Lithuania, and hard borders with Belarus and Russia. The three countries’ governments created a close inter-governmental cooperation platform and the “Baltic Bubble” emerged, allowing unrestricted travel between the three countries between 15 May and 12 September. This enabled all three countries to coordinate their actions, exchange information and, interestingly, facilitate intra-Baltic tourism, which had always been less popular than more exotic destinations.
However, by the summer Latvia’s relative success had bred complacency. The country had won the accolade of being ranked second in dealing with the covid-19 pandemic among OECD members. The government and society did indeed do sterling work in fighting against covid-19 but early successes led to early easing of restrictions, meaning that Latvians have thus been living with very few curtailments on their socio-economic activity since July. But since September, the Baltic bubble has collapsed, the borders with Estonia and Lithuania have closed, and now in the autumn the numbers of new cases are the highest yet recorded. A long dark autumn and winter lie ahead for Latvia if it does not get its policy on the pandemic right at both domestic level and in its interactions with neighbours.
Aleksandra Palkova is a junior researcher at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.
This is the second of three commentaries in a series focusing on the Baltic countries’ experiences of and cooperation during the coronavirus crisis.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.