Facing Pandemic, Latvia Follows the Lead of Its Experts

The country has taken a unified, middle-of-the-road approach to the coronavirus, rooted in respect for science. It’s working.

Riga, Latvia
People mark the 30th anniversary of the restoration of independence in Riga, Latvia, on May 4. GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP via Getty Images

RIGA, Latvia—To the surprise of many, this not particularly wealthy Northern European country of 1.9 million people appears to be one of the coronavirus pandemic’s success stories. As of May 13, Latvia has confirmed only 951 coronavirus cases and 19 deaths. By contrast, neighboring Estonia has recorded double the number of cases and three times as many deaths.

RIGA, Latvia—To the surprise of many, this not particularly wealthy Northern European country of 1.9 million people appears to be one of the coronavirus pandemic’s success stories. As of May 13, Latvia has confirmed only 951 coronavirus cases and 19 deaths. By contrast, neighboring Estonia has recorded double the number of cases and three times as many deaths.

In Latvia, there has been one only death related to COVID-19 since May 4. It seems that the country has not just flattened the curve but smashed it.

Without its usual number of tourists, one could hardly call the capital of Riga bustling, but life goes on. The government has taken a middle-of-the-road approach to restrictions. There is an increased police presence, but it is not overbearing. There is a strict social distancing rule: Citizens are allowed in public only in groups of two and must maintain a six-foot distance from each other. At the same time, all cafes, restaurants, and shops are allowed to remain open.  Still, many have been hit hard by the loss of business and forced to close.

There is no lockdown here—only a slowdown, and it is working. The mood in Riga isn’t exactly upbeat, but it isn’t grim. It is something else: The feeling of an ethnically divided country that is pulling itself together, perhaps for the first time.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

March 12—when the cabinet declared a state of emergency—stands out as a pivotal moment in Latvia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Elsewhere in Europe, there was little agreement about how to respond to the crisis. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson joked about how he was still shaking hands. The European Union was still “assessing” the situation. It appeared to be every country on its own.

“That was a tense day,” Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins told Foreign Policy. “The World Health Organization had just declared COVID-19 a pandemic. We had not recorded any deaths. The number of infections was small and growing slowly.” Karins is a U.S.-born, Ivy League-educated politician appointed by President Raimonds Vejonis in January 2019 as the head of a broad-based, five-party coalition. A member of the Latvian diaspora, he returned to the small Baltic state in the early 1990s and entered politics in 2002.

After declaring the state of emergency, which allows the cabinet to set new laws, pending parliamentary review, the government shut down Latvia’s school system and switched it to remote learning. At the time, schools in many other countries remained open, but acting on the advice of its medical advisors, Latvia’s government decided to shutter them. “We decided to do this in order to prevent a disaster,” Karins said.

With the support of the opposition, the government took a number of other forceful steps. On March 17, Riga’s international airport was closed except for government repatriation flights for Latvians abroad. At the time, the airports in Tallinn, Estonia, and Vilnius, Lithuania, were still in full operation. The social distancing rule was imposed for all private and public meetings, with fines up to 2,000 euros ($2,200) for violating the two-person limit. At the same time, the cabinet pursued its middle-of-the-road approach in the commercial sector, shutting down malls on the weekends, while allowing most other commercial establishments to remain open.

“Test, track, isolate,” is the government’s mantra.

Like both Germany and South Korea, Latvia at the same time instituted an aggressive diagnostic testing regimen with the aid of a hastily scrambled consortium of public and private laboratories, with the aim of tracking and isolating every case of the coronavirus. The country currently has one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world. “Test, track, isolate,” is the government’s mantra, according to Karins. “It’s terrible to compare death rates across countries,” the prime minister said. “The deaths we have had are still tragedies. But considering how things could have gone, and looking around Europe, it seems that we’re doing well.”

While it was likely aided by its small size and a bit of luck, it is surprising that Latvia has fared so well against the coronavirus. Its underfunded health care system, which includes a number of Soviet-era facilities, could hardly be called state-of-the-art. Moreover, many staff are over the age of 65 and there are too few nurses. In part, it was an awareness of the health care system’s deficiencies that prompted the government to act quickly and preemptively. There was no room for an influx of patients.

Health Minister Ilze Vinkele reported on March 19 that Latvia had 450 ICU beds, with 1,500 additional beds that can be retrofitted as ICU units—but even that is nowhere near enough to handle an outbreak the size of Italy’s or Spain’s. At first, personal protective equipment for medical staff was in short supply but the government enlisted the Ministry of Defense’s logistics team to expedite procurement  of such equipment.

The government has also acted with a deep-rooted respect for science and medical expertise, relying on a cadre of the region’s top epidemiologists and virologists based in Latvia. “There was a feeling, early on, that we needed to bring our best medical minds to the fore,” said Janis Bekeris, the chief spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There were also the cautionary examples of other European countries such as the United Kingdom, which ignored its experts at the beginning of its outbreak, or Italy, which counted on a regional rather than a national strategy.

One of  Latvia’s experts is Uga Dumpis, an infectious disease specialist at Pauls Stradins Clinical University Hospital and one of the cabinet’s top advisors. Dumpis called Latvia’s carefully calibrated, relatively unrestrictive response “one of the freest in Europe.” He and his colleagues are nonetheless critical of the largely haphazard, no-lockdown response in Sweden, where schools remain open, social distancing is recommended rather than mandated, and nearly 3,500 people have died.

In Latvia, according to Dumpis, the government’s containment measures have received a high degree of public support. He hopes that the coronavirus will compel the country’s leaders to invest more money in the cash-strapped health care system. “Last year Latvia spent 4 percent of its GDP on health care,” he said. By contrast, in 2018 Estonia and Lithuania spent 5.1 percent and 5.9 respectively.

Along with the public support for the government’s response, the pandemic seems to have helped bring the country together. The two most prominent experts on the pandemic, Dumpis and Jurijs Perevoscikovs, happen to be from different sides of Latvia’s ethnic divide. Dumpis is an ethnic Latvian, while Perevoscikovs is a member of the country’s Russian-speaking minority. Having representatives of both communities as the public face of the government’s COVID-19 response is “an unexpected side effect of the pandemic,” Karins said. “The virus doesn’t treat people by their level of income or ethnicity.”

The government’s challenge now is finding the right balance between keeping the curve flat and deciding which restrictions to loosen. “The fulcrum of the balance is our experts,” Karins said. On May 7, when, after consulting its experts, the cabinet extended the state of emergency through June 9 while loosening some restrictions. In-person consultation for school exams is allowed, and shopping malls can stay open during the weekend. Masks are now mandatory on public transportation. Members of the business community hit hard by the coronavirus have been among the Karins government’s supporters during the crisis. The government has covered 75 percent of employees’ salaries up to 700 euros ($750) and granted tax deferment to companies for up to three years. “I have to say that I am very impressed by the way the government handled the situation,” said Bernhard Loew, the Austrian manager of a luxury hotel that has temporarily closed. “The correct moves were taken at the right time.”

The right decisions by the right people at the right time: That seems to be the best explanation for Latvia’s success. “Crises can bring out the best and worst in people and governments,” Karins said. “And I think in our case we’re one of the countries where at least this crisis has brought out the best in our people and the government as well.”

Hopefully, Latvians will continue to exercise the same exemplary self-discipline and concern for the commonweal they have displayed thus far. Whether they do so remains to be seen. “We are dealing with human behavior here, not mathematical modules,” Dumpis said. Still, it is difficult to take issue with Karins’s rosy assessment: It’s bracing to see a country get its act together. It appears that a medical crisis has helped Latvia resolve its identity crisis and enhanced the public’s sense of safety, as well as  the feeling that the national government cares about its citizens.

One of the many surprises of the coronavirus crisis has been the number of Latvian diaspora who decided to return. Over 5,000 Latvians boarded the repatriation flights the government offered amid the outbreak, according to Bekeris, far exceeding the foreign affairs ministry’s expectations. The returnees included tourists and students, but also reportedly many Latvians residing abroad who decided that now was the right time to come home for good.

Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian based in Riga who focuses on the Baltic and Nordic regions. He is the author of Citizen Kekkonen, a biography of the Cold War-era Finnish President Urho Kekkonen to be published in fall 2020.

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