Finland, Sweden, Denmark…Covid 19 and governments’ responses

Øresund Bridge, linking Denmark and Sweden, where governments have carried out very different coronavirus measures (Wikimedia Commons)

The popular myth about Finland is that of a socialist paradise. It is true that, unlike in other countries in Europe, much of the social-democratic welfare state has been preserved. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has exposed the frailty of this welfare state and the willingness of Finland’s political leadership to put capitalism and capitalists ahead of the wellbeing of workers.

Owing to its low population density, much of Finland has been barely touched by the pandemic, which is concentrated in the capital region around Helsinki, in Uusimaa province. This is luck. The country’s insurance against disease outbreaks – a robust healthcare system – has been whittled away over years of neoliberal reorientation toward private providers.

According to a WHO report, nearly half of Finland’s public hospital beds have been lost to privatization; meanwhile, the same report reveals a huge overcapacity in the private system as for-profit healthcare companies have hoarded medical resources. The solution is obvious: immediate and permanent nationalization of private health care firms so that their resources can be put to use for the common benefit, not just for those able to pay a premium.

The consequences of this hoarding have helped a pandemic spread dangerously far and wide. While the private healthcare company, Terveystalo, sells COVID-19 tests to whoever has €120 to spend on one, this week, Sanna Marin’s government was forced to admit public testing has fallen short. Public health institute, THL, says the currently identified cases are likely to represent only a fraction of all cases.

Marin government

Just three months ago, Prime Minister Sanna Marin received unearned praise worldwide as a rumour spread that she supported cutting the working week with no loss of pay. The government was quick to refute that rumour in words in January; now it refutes them in its action. Like the US and UK, Finland’s government has pledged enormous amounts of public money to prop up the fortunes of capitalists.

Of a €15 billion bailout, the largest single portion is support for big and small business. Finland’s workers get neither income guarantees nor rent holidays, but layoff notices instead. The first two large firms to enact furloughs were the railway company VR and the airport company Finavia – both 100% state-owned. These firms are accountable directly to the cabinet, so their early lay-offs were a deliberate signal by the government to private companies that lay-offs were not just an acceptable response but an encouraging response to the crisis.

Finland’s union confederations have shown themselves equally complicit collaborators with the bosses. Even before the outbreak, the confederations were failing to present a united front on common demands for higher wages and against the “Kiky” extra working hours introduced by the last government.

In the face of COVID-19, despite being in the strongest tactical position in years, the unions have almost all surrendered. With the country in lockdown and relying on stressed teachers improvising “distance learning”, the teachers’ union, OAJ, made a shocking announcement. Negotiations have stalled for public sector teachers and the OAJ openly admits that only a strike warning would advance matters. But the OAJ stated, “With the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing and with the Emergency Powers Act in place, we are of course not doing that”. Instead, unions have supported rule changes making it easier for employers to fire workers and also an emergency power for the government to suspend the rules for leave entitlement and working time for health care workers with no additional pay.

Workers in Italy and elsewhere have made gains by boldly defying the intense pressure to submit to government dictate. Workers in Finland and around the world should fight to be paid the full value of their labour, to work under the safest conditions possible and to share out work with no loss of pay. The most acute public health crisis in decades is not an excuse to attack the working class!

Sweden 

Even if Finnish workers achieved all these demands, the recklessness of our neighbours still puts us at risk. Sweden, despite suffering over ten times the deaths Finland has, so far, and with a higher infection rate, has not even started a lockdown. Ostensibly the reason is that a long lockdown is not, in the eyes of the Swedish state, sustainable. But the real reason is more likely to be that applied by Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK :- a virus response on the cheap, sacrificing the lives and health of workers to save the capitalists’ stock prices. With thousands of workers from Sweden still crossing the border to northern Finland each day, some Finnish health officials have identified the Swedish state’s carefree attitude as the cause of virus cases appearing in communities in Lapland.

Early in the days of the coronavirus outbreak, some commentators lauded the European Union’s policy of allowing each member state to set its own response to COVID-19. Thus, states like Sweden and the Netherlands are spreading the figurative infection of neoliberalism alongside the literal infection of the coronavirus. We need a world-wide, democratically planned, socialist response to the coronavirus. Only then will workers not have to take shelter in their homes while the disease of capital stalks freely across the land.

Denmark

Daniel Dyhrberg, Copenhagen

At the start of the coronavirus crisis in Denmark, the government stated that all Danes returning back to the country from skiing holidays in Austria or from other designated “yellow areas” of the world, should stay at home for 14 days.

When some people did not heed the authorities’ instructions, and one of them had been in town at various nightclubs and the following day was tested positive for coronavirus, the government began a lockdown on Wednesday 11 March.

Everyone who did not have an essential/health professional job was told they should stay at home. On Saturday 14 March, the government decided that all bars, restaurants and the Danish border should close, with some exceptions for essential travel.

Private hospitals were also taken over by the state. 

After the prime minister shut down Denmark, the government held talks with the Danish trade unions. After a very unusual round of tripartite negotiations, the government, on Sunday, presented a large package of aid to business. It was presented at a press conference in which both employers’ and employees’ organizations also participated.

The package means, among other things, that under certain conditions private companies may be covered for part of their payroll expenses by the state for employees who would otherwise have been laid off.

The package applies, in particular, to larger companies, but the prime minister stated that the government is now working on a plan for how self-employed and smaller companies can get help through the crisis.

Despite the government’s agreement with unions, the big companies that have made huge profits, year after year, show no solidarity with the workers, as they still fire people, despite the government covering up to 90 per cent of their payroll expenses

So far, most people praise the actions of Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen [who leads a social democrat minority government, with backing from the Socialist People’s Party, the Red-Green Alliance and the Social-Liberal Party]. In her speech announcing the shutdown of Denmark, Fredriksen said “we must act today and not regret tomorrow”, and many people believed that her statement finally showed a prioritization of human life over profit-making and capitalism.

Many people also compare the situation in Denmark and neighbouring Sweden, where the government has not carried out a lockdown.

We will have to see how events play out in Denmark, and whether the Fredriksen will remain relatively popular or not.

I personally hope that when we are over on the other side of this crisis that we will think much more about solidarity. In the future, people will remember that when crises erupt it is not your employer and capitalism that will help you, but it is the community that will help you, once again.

 

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