Second waving – and (not) drowning? A Finnish social scientist “reflects” by Liisa Lähteenmäki*

Liisa Lähteenmäki is in the final year of her TIAS post-doctoral fellowship. Here she offers some whimsical reflections on the bypassing of social realities when contemplating the Covid-19 outbreak.

During the summer, the corona pandemic almost obeyed “the Trumpian wet dream” of disappearing in Finland – the entire country had only a few new cases and no further deaths occurred. In the fall, as universities, schools, play-schools and day-care centres started to open their doors for yet another semester, concern over the second wave of Covid-19 mounted as new cases were confirmed at an accelerating speed and both local health-care specialists in the Turku area and the national health officials cautioned about a possible second wave of the epidemic.

During the pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion of the risk and manner of contagion, about safe distancing, washing of hands and sneezing properly. A lot of the information and discussion has revolved around epidemiological issues, something which is of course self-evident. But as a sociologist it seems to me this epidemiological “takeover” of public discourse has somewhat distracted us from noticing the cultural and social factors in the spread – or rather in the attempted prevention – of the disease. I mean, the virus is the same everywhere, but social reality is not. Let me clarify a bit.

Let’s take Finland as an example (for, again, self-evident reasons) and examine the impact of the virus in the context of characteristics often attributed to us Finns.

Finns are taciturn and reserved. This age-old myth still holds in many cases when you first meet a Finn (males especially). Only a few of us are highly social, talkative and forthcoming the minute you meet us (unless we have had a fair amount of alcohol). And even as time goes by, we seldom become very forward: we don’t kiss and hug, (not even our spouses (https://areena.yle.fi/audio/1-2857325 or our children https://www.hs.fi/elama/art-2000002748119.html). Even during “normal” times handshakes between strangers are a bit too much for many (https://www.is.fi/kotimaa/art-2000000786103.html). In pandemic times these quirks have become our strengths! In Finland, you don’t usually see people hugging or – God forbid – kissing, on the streets. Except with younger generations: As the education of showing our feelings more freely and the desire to become more socially extrovert has found fertile ground, we now see a spike in cases among the young, and first year university students especially. So actually, one could argue that whereas it is the elderly who have been most subjected to rules about social distancing, it is the young that we need to keep in isolation! Perhaps it was ever thus!

Finns live separate and most of us in the middle of nowhere. The only truly high concentration of people is Helsinki, with some 655 000 inhabitants. The population density in Helsinki is ‎3 059 people/km². However, in the second biggest city of Finland (by population), Espoo, the density is only 932,01 people/km2. Only four cities in Finland has the population density of more than 1000 people/km.2 To take an (almost) random example from elsewhere, New York has a population density 27,000 people per square mile!! So, we comparatively and actually live far apart. And even in the big cities, people know to stay away from other people’s faces:

“The bus stop” by Daniele Zanni.

What is more, only Helsinki and Lapland are actual tourist magnets in Finland, which further delimits the impact of travel. Not surprisingly, Helsinki and Lapland were the sites with first cases of Covid19 in the Spring, and Helsinki was the only area that was “isolated” during the first wave. But after the summer, there has now been a concentration of cases even in the more remote town of Kuhmo with its population density of 1.69 people/km²  (https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuhmo)! As the newspaper Maaseudun Tulevaisuus (The future of countryside) explains, even in the countryside, the people are no (longer) hermits! (https://www.maaseuduntulevaisuus.fi/kotimaa/artikkeli-1.1187639).

During the first wave, it was reported that in Italy, a massive amount of infections were caught in a soccer game https://on.wsj.com/3bZppV0. Well, thank God, Finland is definitely not a soccer country. We don’t even have stadiums that could seat 40 000 people! Even when we do play soccer, there seldom is any reason to yell, sing, or to hug and kiss your fellow spectator. Well, actually this has now changed a bit, as in 2019 Finland, for the first time, qualified for the finals of the Euros tournament (https://bit.ly/3cbrYDT.) Still, we are ice-hockey people! But there too, even the biggest rink in Helsinki only has some 13 000 seats. And if you ever have attended a game in Finland, you will have noticed that even a goal by your favorite team does not spark any close encounters in the reticent Finns. Only hardcore fans make some noise in the games. Otherwise it is business as usual. Luckily, Finland only rarely wins the world ice hockey championships – as winning more often could pose a serious risk: https://www.hs.fi/urheilu/art-2000006120994.html. I mean, seriously, Sweden has won it 11 times and look at them!

On a more serious note, we should not forget Finnish innovations. If you have visited Finland, you probably have noticed that in many of the public premises’ toilets there are automatic – or at least single-lever – taps. Single-lever taps were introduced in Finland as early as 1974 and automatic taps in 1990! (https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oras_Group). So while, for example, in the UK, you still see two-lever taps even in the most top-notch hotels (not to mention private homes), in Finland the fact that you may wash your hands without touching the tap has been normal for quite a long time. Needless to say, the ample availability of fresh, clean water and a functioning water supply/sewerage system are Finnish strengths too. Add sauna and lakes to this and it is clear that Finns know a thing or two about washing our hands.

So, while the epidemiological facts are of utter importance in the fight against the virus, one should not forget the social factors either. Finns may be weird, but in this battle – with our reserved nature, distanced living, social awkwardness and unrivaled knowledge of water –  we also have our weirdness on our side!

PS: The cherry on the cake: Kalsarikänni! https://finland.fi/emoji/kalsarikannit/  

* I’m indebted to TIAS Director Martin Cloonan for his cheeky but wise comments.

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1 Response to Second waving – and (not) drowning? A Finnish social scientist “reflects” by Liisa Lähteenmäki*

  1. mksant says:

    😀 Thanks Liisa for good laughs!

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