Ronald Reagan was often called the “Teflon President” because criticism and guilt never seemed to attach. Indeed, many said that his charm formed a cover that rejected public criticism and explained his high popularity.
The “lipstick government” led by Prime Minister Marin in Finland seems to be made of the same material. The criticism doesn’t seem to be attaching, because it’s great that we have a young female prime minister, which has even been written about in Vogue, and it would be misogynistic to criticize the government because it is made up mostly of young women. At the same time, emotional stories are written about the Prime Minister in the yellow press, and the culprits are being searched for somewhere else, even on questionable grounds.
Those who critically examine the actions of the government are branded as “bitter uncles,” and issues themselves are not dealt with. An objective and critical discussion of the issues is almost impossible without being stigmatized in the process as either a bitter uncle or as a ‘true Finn’, which in colloquial language means roughly the same as a less gifted racist. They also try to silence the criticism by saying that now is not the time to politicize. Politics should only be discussed in retrospect, when it is too late, whenever the time will come.
Those in power know very well that the political memory of a citizen is short. There are also three years to go before the next election – enough time to improve the public image many times. It’s also easier if a critical debate is stifled when the need is greatest. In hindsight, it’s easy to say “well, it was then, you couldn’t have done better yourself,” projecting the negations of the conversation on the critic’s shoulders.
There has been a lot of public debate about pandemic preparedness. The WHO published a report in September 2019, which showed that there was insufficient preparedness for the global spread of a pathogen causing respiratory infection.
In Finland, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has published its own updated report in 2013, which addresses the material needs for pandemic preparedness. The report states that the National Emergency Supply Agency (NESA) has sufficient numbers of mouth and nose protectors and that hospital districts do not need to purchase them separately. Regarding the procurement of FFP3 protectors, the report said that hospital districts should manage procurement in cooperation with the NESA, leaving the responsibility for procurement to further preparations, as “there is no separate budget in the state budget”.
The virus spreading in China was known as early as November 2019, when U.S. intelligence warned the White House, NATO, and Israel about the virus.
At the beginning of December 2019, the Finnish authorities organised a joint exercise at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport to prepare for biological threats. China officially warned the WHO of the virus in late December 2019.
At this stage at the latest, the government should have reviewed Ministry of Social Affairs and Health’s material report and found that the previous governments had not fulfilled their obligations concerning FFP3 masks and made the necessary material purchases.
The WHO issued its first guidance on the coronavirus on the 10th of January. The first non-Chinese corona infection was diagnosed on the 13th of January. The WHO issued its first international public health concern over the virus on the 30th of January.
On January 25, Iltalehti published an article saying that Oriola is out of protective masks. Oriola is one of Finland’s largest pharmaceutical wholesalers. According to the story, the masks were also out of stock from Tamro, another major domestic pharmaceutical wholesaler. Oriola reported that demand was ten times higher than normal. This was not a cause for concern.
Prime Minister Marin was interviewed in Vogue in late January and the article shows that Marin would take her child out of kindergarten soon, to protect herself. Marin has known in good time that the public health threat posed by the coronavirus is serious and must be taken seriously, therefore the claims that no one knew about the epidemic in advance are distorted and an attempt of escaping the political responsibility.
Even at this stage, the government had not found it necessary to go through the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health report to find that the NESA does not have FFP3 protectors.
Finland’s first corona infections were diagnosed in January when a tourist in a northern resort was diagnosed with the infection. Subsequent infections were still faded, but even then it was clear that the virus was spreading internationally and the threat it posed should have been taken seriously.
OUTSOURCING OF DECISION-MAKING RESPONSIBILITY
At the end of February, on February 24th, THL director Mika Salminen considered Italy’s actions to be exaggerated as the epidemic spread in the country at an alarming rate. On February 27th, Mika Salminen said that at that time there was no risk of infection in Finland when there were only two laboratory-confirmed cases of corona in Finland.
However, citizens were not tested for corona unless they came from the epidemic area of Wuhan and had clear and severe symptoms of acute respiratory infection. The message to the citizens was still just “wash your hands”.
As early as the beginning of March, exactly on March 5th, Helsingin Sanomat published an article in which THL’s medical superintendent Taneli Puumalainen said that “influenza seems to spread up to 50-100 times more effectively than the coronavirus epidemic“.
On March 12th, during parliamentary question time, Marin said that she trusted health care professionals and said that there was no state of emergency in Finland: “I do not want a message to be spread from this house where people should fear that there is an emergency in Finland. That is not the case.”
At the same time, representatives of the opposition had already called for efforts to prevent the epidemic. The opposition also proposed the immediate closure of schools and kindergartens, to which Marin said that if health authorities recommended the closure of kindergartens and schools, experts would, of course, be listened to.
Marin had outsourced responsibility for decision-making to health authorities and did not show the necessary determined leadership at the same time as the virus continued to spread.
A state of emergency was declared in Finland on March 16th. It was later found out that the decision was made by President Niinistö and that Marin herself would have been reluctant.
POLITICAL HAND WASHING
The debate over the adequacy of protective equipment has been heated throughout the spring. However, the doors of the NESA storages had to be opened only a week after the declaration of a state of emergency, on 23th of March, due to an acute shortage of protective equipment in hospital districts.
At the same time, Päivi Sillanaukee, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, said in public that there is enough protective equipment: “There are millions of masks” in the NESA warehouses and “they will not run out”. However, the truth about the NESA masks is that they were an outdated legacy in preparation for the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
On March 25th, domestic import and retail companies informed Iltalehti that the situation with masks was “catastrophically low”.
At the beginning of April, the HUS announced that there was insufficient protective equipment, that the protective equipment received from the NESA was insufficient, outdated, and practically did not change the protective mask situation in any direction.
At the same time, Minister of Social Affairs and Health Aino-Kaisa Pekonen said at a press conference on 1st of April that there is no critical shortage of staff or equipment in hospitals and also denied that outdated masks did not come from the NESA. However, Pekonen herself had already mentioned at the press conference at the end of January that the masks in NESA storages were out of date, but tested by VTT. The mask manufacturer no longer recommended the use of masks that had been obsolete for several years.
Even The New York Times believed the government’s message, and on April 5th published an article on Finland being “Prepper Nation of the Nordics”
All this time, people flocked to the country from the airport without any instructions, let alone testing or quarantine. As the awareness of the matter arose, it took a very long time before it was changed, with ministers blaming each other and even airport and fleeing their responsibilities.
On April 8th, Prime Minister Marin accused municipalities of poor preparedness for the crisis by tweeting “Some municipalities are now looking to the state or even the business community to blame for their poor preparedness.” although according to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health report, there was sufficiently and additional purchases were the responsibility of the NESA, ie in practice the government, because the masks are not part of the NESA’s normal inventory and therefore order requests must come from the government.
Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori did not swallow Marin’s criticism of poor preparedness and said that according to the pandemic preparedness guidelines, the amount of protective equipment had to be 3-6 months equivalent to normal use, while during the crisis naturally much more protective equipment was used.
Throughout the crisis, decision-making and accountability have been marked by strong political hand-washing and the search for culprits and those responsible other than oneself.
Businessman Onni Sarmaste had contacted the NESA at the end of March, offering his help in purchasing protective equipment. The NESA ended up ordering a total of more than three million different masks, 1,1 million FFP2 protection level masks, and 2 million FFP1 masks from Sarmaste. No FFP3 level masks were ordered from Sarmaste either.
The first batch of masks delivered by Sarmaste landed at Helsinki-Vantaa on April 8th, and they were tested by VTT. A statement was made to the public that the masks were not suitable for hospital use, but could be used in both home care and nursing homes.
VTT has performed the necessary tests on masks in Finland for their suitability. However, VTT also states on its website that they do not have the appropriate equipment to perform testing: “All surgical masks must satisfy the criteria set by the Finnish Medicines Agency, which currently requires testing with bacteria. In deviation from these acceptance criteria, the test particles used in VTT’s measurements are DEHS particles. Testing with bacteria would require a laboratory process different from that used by VTT.” Thus, VTT does not have a license or equipment to perform appropriate tests on masks and performs tests by HEPA standards, which does not quite correspond to what is being applied for, although it may act as a guide. On this basis, however, an official statement has been made that the masks were not suitable for hospital use.
On April 9th, the number one news in Finland was after Suomen Kuvalehti had published an article on mask deals the day before, how NESA had become entangled in shady business deals with a “businessman with personal debts in foreclosure” and a “convicted financial criminal”. The persons were businessman Onni Sarmaste and entrepreneur Tiina Jylhä, who runs an Estonian beauty company.
Minister of Labor Tuula Haatainen demanded a report from the NESA on mask deals. It later became known that Haatainen had learned about the deals specifically from Suomen Kuvalehti. The content of the whole public discussion focused on the fact that Sarmaste had personal debts in foreclosure and that he had previously been involved in the payday loans business.
On April 10th, Prime Minister Marin announced in public that Tomi Lounema, CEO of the NESA, no longer enjoyed her trust, forcing Lounema to resign.
There was a great uproar about the mask deals, which did not subside. If a businessman is stigmatized because he has personal debts in foreclosure, then we are on a rather dangerous path. In the 1990s, a wave of bankruptcy swept through Finland, leaving many entrepreneurs alone broke with their debts. Many of them are still in the foreclosure due to the events. The corona crisis will also bankrupt many companies, and after the pandemic, there will be many more entrepreneurs in Finland who are in foreclosure. If this means that these people cannot be trusted or traded with, it will be even more difficult for domestic micro and SME entrepreneurs to make their businesses profitable.
Many entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs at heart and value their business more than their own personal balance. Many are pumping all the money into their start-up companies at their own expense and it is even mandatory – no funding is available for the company unless there already is a base. To do this, the houses are mortgaged, money is borrowed from relatives and friends, and every reversible stone is turned over. Micro-entrepreneurship threatens to end in Finland if entrepreneurs are not allowed to take a financial risk with their personal assets without becoming stigmatized when the risk materializes.
At a time when the debate is fierce about the Sarmaste deal and how the masks were not suitable for hospital use, less attention is being paid to the most important issue. Why has the government systematically claimed that there are enough masks and protective gear, even though at the same time it has been clear as the day that this is not the case? Why does the government not take political responsibility for the matter itself, but shifts responsibility to municipalities and hospital districts?
Sarmaste has issued a statement to the public stating that the masks were not originally intended for hospital use. Although this has been disputed by the government, the contract between Sarmaste and the NESA is very clear. The NESA has ordered only FFP1 and FFP2 KN95 level masks from Sarmaste. FFP3 level masks have not been ordered from Sarmaste either.
The police were asked to investigate the NESA’s business deals with Sarmaste and Jylhä, and after looking into the matter, the National Bureau of Investigation (KRP) determined that the threshold for a preliminary investigation has been exceeded and a preliminary investigation into the deals has been initiated. The assets of Sarmaste’s company have been frozen by the KRP before the ongoing preliminary investigation, making it difficult for Sarmaste to deliver the remainder of the contracted products as agreed.
It has shown in public how Jylhä has marketed her products with a forged certificate, so it may be justified to start a preliminary investigation regarding this. However, the intent of the act cannot be ascertained because it is possible that the certificates came from China as is.
In recent days, there have also been allegations in the public that the masks supplied by Sarmaste would cause skin reactions as well as to have a smell. Sarmaste himself has commented on the matter so that the masks are intended to be used only on a patient- and procedure basis, about half an hour per mask, while our nurses are required to keep the masks on for up to 6-8 hours. About the smell Sarmaste commented that “When those materials are made, certain vapours are generated. Usually, they have a little time to evaporate before the products are made because the materials stand in stock. Now they come straight from the making to the production line and therefore some can have a smell of fresh polypropylene.”
No further public comment has been made on what odours nurses wearing masks would have reported. The NESA has since ordered hospital districts not to use masks, but not to destroy them because they want the masks to be tested even more closely.
Sarmaste himself writes in his Facebook profile: “Nursing staff are preferred to use kitchen paper as a mask, simply because some minister wants to save their own skin because of my delivery. This is the reality. I have received much praise from the field to the fact that the masks were quickly introduced”
FEELS LIKE WITCH HUNT
Based on Sarmaste’s public statements and official documents, it seems that this whole masquerade has the characteristics of a witch hunt, which at the ministerial-level tries to avoid their dismissal. Due to the mask deals of the NESA, one completely outside person, Tomi Lounema, the former CEO of the NESA, has already had to resign. Lounema had nothing to do with the deals, the mask trade contract with Sarmaste for the NESA was made by Jyrki Hakola, whose signature is in the contract between the NESA and Sarmaste. Lounema had to resign because of Prime Minister Marin’s statement that Lounema no longer enjoyed the confidence of the Prime Minister.
However, the political responsibility for the deals is with the government. Ministers have not released to the public the guidance given to the NESA in relation to the deals. Businessman Sarmaste, on the other hand, has offered to supply the rest of the masks in a conciliatory manner at hospital grade material, albeit at his own expense, and has also said he is ready to discuss the deals if necessary.
Neither the NESA nor the Ministries have contacted Sarmaste and it seems that Sarmaste is being targeted at a ministerial-level that has excelled in escaping responsibility and in political handwashing throughout the epidemic, rather than handling the order properly with reclamation and negotiations with the seller.
Sarmaste has provided the public with both the contract with the NESA and the purchase order, as well as the manufacturer’s catalogue image from where the masks have been ordered in cooperation with the NESA.
Perhaps some of the corona deaths in nursing homes could have been avoided in Finland if the government had stated in the beginning that there was not enough protective equipment and had acquired it in good time? And without such a completely incomprehensible mess that does not give the government any valid and good impression.
It remains to be seen whether the Teflon Government will remain in place for the next three years. By outsourcing difficult decisions, escaping one’s own political responsibility and accusing others, it may persist if it succeeds.
To Marin’s great relief, Finland is not the only country where things have not gone exactly perfectly.
Stay at home and stay healthy.
The Finland Herald
Victor A. Lausas
Editor in Chief