Estonia in Lockdown: Life as Normal?

As Covid-19 forced most of Europe to stumble haphazardly into an online existence, Estonia was unphased. Their digitised society allowed for an early lockdown without hesitation on logistical grounds. The Estonian example must be the blueprint for the digitisation of other European societies post-coronavirus.

Illustration Credit: Hattie Barnes

Would it surprise you to hear that Estonia is the world’s most digitised society? Situated in the very northeast of Europe on the Baltic coast, Estonia lacks regular consideration. Yet, almost immediately after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, they embarked on a unique journey with their newfound independence. The society created would, unknowingly, be well-equipped to face the conditions of a global pandemic.

From a humble start, Estonia dreamt of a well-connected, innovative society where its population could thrive in a Europe now devoid of the Iron Curtain. Judge their success for yourself: broadband coverage in a country with various small islands, often inhabited by only a dozen people, is at 99 percent; bar the procedures for marriage and divorce, everything is processed online – birth registration, requesting state assistance, the transfer of property, reporting sick leave, ordering prescriptions, receiving professional medical advice, voting. What requires tiresome queues and endless bottles of handwash in an unlocking Britain is practiced, by Estonians, from the comfort of their sofa through a microchipped ID card.

With the digital infrastructure in place, once faced with the threat of Covid-19, the decision to lockdown society in Estonia was taken without hesitation. The transition of education to an e-learning system is a case in point. In a study conducted by the European Union of its members, Estonia ranked top in digital learning resources. This is no surprise given that development of the infrastructure began over a decade ago, with teacher training in the online system having existed just as long. While the education systems in other European countries have struggled to pivot to online operation – Germany especially so, given they ranked bottom of the EU study – Estonia have successfully made the transition. Of course, minor problems have arisen with an unprecedented demand in lockdown. That said, with the infrastructure well-established, Estonia were well placed to cater for educational needs during a pandemic.

The story is repeated across public sector services, putting to shame the efforts of Western European countries to adapt effectively. For example, the Estonian judicial process was already digitised. Courts routinely video call defendants into courtrooms from the prison – it should be mentioned, Skype is typically used given its origin in Estonia! In the sphere of digitised health care, Estonia unsurprisingly excel. An e-ambulance app allows ambulance crews to view the medical history of a patient before arriving to a scene. Doctoring from a distance via video call is also a well-established phenomenon, given the multitude of small inhabited islands. It is obvious that little had to change to keep the cogs of Estonian society turning.

I know what you’re thinking. It is what most are questioning, especially the naturally sceptical British. Does the digitisation of the most personal information not pose huge privacy and security concerns? The short answer: no – and in fact, it has increased public trust in the state given the level of transparency and the opportunity for accountability. The data is decentralised with end to end encryption, meaning no institution has complete access and reducing the risk of a holistic data breach. Citizens own their data and are aware of what is stored. A logbook system creates a level of transparency impossible with analogue forms of data storage: it allows citizens to see who, and from which institution, has looked at a given piece of their personal information. It is a criminal offense for those with access to retrieve any data without sufficient reason. On the topic of transparency and accountability, the digitisation of information allows for popular access to Estonia’s land registry. Ordinary citizens are therefore able to scrutinise the operations of, say, politicians, or other power individuals.

It goes without saying that a digitised society augurs well for a scenario where its population are forced to stay indoors in hiding from an invisible assailant. With little need to hesitate on grounds of unpreparedness, Estonia were able to lockdown early. A state of emergency was declared on 12 March before any deaths and with only 27 recorded cases. The emergency was relieved in mid-May. Life for Estonians is gradually returning to normal with mass gathering events scheduled to resume from July. Estonia recorded 1890 cases and 69 deaths. At the time of writing, the UK has reached 50,000 coronavirus induced deaths, one of the highest death rates per capita in the world. Among the wealth of lessons to be learned from this pandemic, the case for a digital society is evident. Estonia were able to lockdown early with minimal disruption to society and few logistical concerns. While any loss of life is a tragedy, the resultant low death rate should be hailed by Estonians and advocates of a digitised society.

On a side note, the pandemic has highlighted the salience of tackling digital poverty in the UK, with access to broadband having never been so necessary. Suddenly, a pledge to provide high quality free broadband to every corner of the UK sounds pretty appropriate.

Always ahead of the times, and without the burden of having to adapt society to new lockdown realities, Estonia have used this time to prepare to hit the ground running post-pandemic. Through the initiative ‘Hack the Crisis’, government funds have been offered to the top five entries of start-up businesses designed to ‘help tackle the crisis and position Estonia well for the aftermath’, to use its own words. The level of ambition incited by the state is evident – ‘do not stop at anything’, the scheme demands, ‘think of moonshots’. That Kersti Kaljulaid, the President of Estonia, is a mentor for another initiative supporting start-ups, ‘Salto Growth Camp: EMERGEncy’, is telling of the degree of commitment in the higher echelons of state power to further push the boundaries of post-coronavirus innovation. By nature, it seems Estonia are a problem-solving nation, supportive of grassroots innovation and, above all else, unapologetically ambitious.

Estonia are exporting their model of societal organisation. Through e-Estonia, companies and policy makers globally are being assisted in building leading IT services, helping to create more digitised societies. From its independence less than thirty years ago, the depth of Estonian success in this field is unrivalled. The only message from the Digital Transformation Advisor at e-Estonia, Anett Numa – ‘Dream big!’