The burden of implementing central government guidelines on the Covid-19 pandemic response has fallen on local authorities, placing them at the frontline of the fight against coronavirus.  At NordicBaltic.Tech, a partnership between PUBLIC Denmark and the Nordic Council of Ministers, we take a look at the leadership and ingenuity local governments have displayed in the Covid-19 pandemic in the Nordic-Baltic region, and how misaligned incentives have caused tension between different levels of government.  

In the fight against coronavirus, emergency response guidelines and regulations have predominantly been set at the central government level across Europe. However, the burden of implementing central government guidelines has mostly fallen on local authorities. Local authorities are providing testing for residents in the area, managing local hospital and social care capacity, monitoring and safeguarding public transport use within cities, taking measures to meet the distance learning needs of local school children, dealing with the rise in domestic abuse, and enforcing social distancing in public spaces.   

Cities in the Nordic-Baltic region have shown exceptional leadership and ingenuity in responding to the Covid-19 crisis. From the Copenhagen Marathon, to Oslo Pride, to various Victory Day celebrations, local authorities have taken responsibility for cancelling events to lower the risk of infection within municipalities. In some cases, cities have even taken the lead on lockdown measures. Prior to any confirmed coronavirus cases, Vilnius imposed a city-wide lockdown on the 12th of March, ahead of decisions taken by the national government. Oslo went above and beyond national social distancing guidelines and banned the sale of alcohol in pubs, bars and restaurants between 21 March and 6 May, in the hope that this would discourage people from communing in close proximity to one another. We take a look at the role local governments have played in the Covid-19 pandemic in the Nordic-Baltic region, and how misaligned incentives have caused conflicts between different levels of government.  

Greater need for acknowledgement of local conditions  

The tension between generalised central government directives and local social and economic needs has been a continuous source of discussion and public discord in Norway. In addition to the national lockdown measures, some local councils in Norway imposed their own lockdown rules limiting domestic travel. With severely limited intensive care facilities in the northern regions of the country, authorities felt that imposing local restrictions was the best way to protect their residents and avoid deaths due to facility shortages.   

The result, however, is a patchwork of different lockdown restrictions across the country, causing tension between regions, and between local authorities and the central government. The northern regions of Lofoten and Vesterålen imposed a 14 day quarantine on individuals coming from the south of Norway, which started a chain reaction amongst local councils and municipalities closing their regions and harbours to external residents. Municipalities published messages on their websites stating that Norwiegians from other regions were not welcome, and roadblocks were set up on highways.   

The local quarantine rules caused many problems for individuals who usually travel to nearby municipalities for work, or to access healthcare facilities, shops, and schools. The restrictions were met with heavy opposition from trade unions and workers’ organisations. In a time when so many Norweigians are unable to work, preventing those who are allowed to go to work, according to national government guidelines, to do so exacerbates the economic impacts of Covid-19. Not only do the restrictions imposed by local authorities impact businesses whose employees remain absent, it also affects supply chains across the country that were already under pressure due to the disruption of industrial production. Whilst the central government asked local authorities to reconsider the local quarantines, many refused to do so.  

In Norway, efforts have also been made to recognise the limited capacity and resources of rural hospitals. To protect these hospitals, the Norwegian government issued regulations which prohibit citizens from spending lockdown in holiday homes (cabins) in rural areas. However, these measures have come under fire for their lack of nuance. Opponents, such as FRP leader Siv Jensen, argue that there is a huge variance in the density of cabin fields around the country. Shutting down those areas in which cabins are widely scattered harms the local economy more than it reduces the burden on local healthcare facilities. Once again, the lack of acknowledgement of variations in local conditions has been a source of dispute.   

There was further tension between central and local governments in Norway with regards to education. Whilst the Norwegian government were in discussion about reopening schools and kindergartens on the 20th of April, Oslo municipal government decreed that it would keep educational institutions closed for at least a week after the Easter break, regardless of central government guidelines. As the local authority owns the schools within the Oslo area, it has the legal right to keep them closed.   Oslo city has been the epicenter of the pandemic in Norway, and its inhabitants face greater risk of infection than those in other urban centers and rural areas. The city argued that especially after the easter break it would be unsafe to reopen schools due to the rise in interactions between families over easter. Furthermore, Oslo municipality feared that many parents would be unwilling to send their children back to school due to safety concerns, which would result in unequal educational support between children staying home and those returning to school, and place further burdens on teachers who would have to deliver classes both in person and online. City officials said they hoped that the Norwegian government would allow for greater differentiation within the general regulations of the pandemic response, to take account of local conditions.  

Managing health and social care resources  

Managing healthcare resources has been one of the greatest challenges of the pandemic, and has also caused conflicts between national governments who set the requirements for testing, and municipalities who need to find the resources to deliver on testing targets. At the start of the outbreak, local authorities were racing against the clock to develop strategies which would ensure a sufficient availability of testing facilities and hospital beds for Covid-19 patients, but often reported receiving insufficient support to secure the necessary resources.  

The Norweigian government set requirements for cities to test 5% of residents for Covid-19 on a weekly basis. However, Oslo, Bærum, Nordre Follow, Ullensaker and Lillestrøm were unable to meet these targets due to lack of equipment, and several appeals were made to the Ministry of Health to provide funding and support to source equipment. The pandemic has highlighted the need to work together across different levels of government to share resources, and that central governments need to take the capacity of local governments into account when setting requirements.   

That being said, some cities have displayed exceptional attitudes towards collaborative emergency response. In Copenhagen, the pandemic was the impetus for a broad coalition of political parties to come together and sign off on a DKK 40m budget for digitising social care and implementing measures to train the elderly to use digital tools to combat social isolation within the city.   

The city of Vilnius developed an algorithm to determine the order in which hospitals in the city would be used to house coronavirus patients, opening each consecutive location after the previous hospital had reached 75% capacity. Through mapping different scenarios using the algorithm, city authorities realised that in the worst case scenario an additional 2000 beds would have to be made available, and plans were developed to adapt public buildings to set up temporary hospitals. Mapping out different scenarios also allerted Vilnius officials to the need to work together with smaller cities in the region, to share resources and build a regional strategy for emergency response.  

Other cities have adopted new approaches to deal with human resource shortages. Stockholm has launched an initiative to recruit graduating nursing students directly into the Covid-19 workforce. Students who are currently in the final year of their degree can register at one of the city’s 13 district administrations, and are guaranteed employment as long as they graduate with a grade above a low threshold. With limited resources to monitor public spaces to ensure individuals are following health guidelines, Tallinn has placed a troop of drones equipped with speakers in parks and public spaces to disseminate information about social distancing in three languages (Estonian, Russian and English).  

Providing childcare and education  

Ensuring that the educational needs of children are met during the lockdown is no easy task for local authorities. However, some municipalities have gone the extra mile to support families, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. After surveying schools to assess the barriers to remote education, Vilnius distributed 5000 tablets and 500 laptops to children from large families and those with lower socioeconomic standing. Within the city almost all pupils now have the digital tools needed to continue their education from home.   

Fearing that youth would break lockdown rules during the spring break, Tallinn officials arrange digital activities for youth and children in collaboration with youth centres and museums.Tallinn Central Library also made all their e-books freely available during the lockdown, and librarians are reading books to children over video calls. Vilnius Central Library has also run a very successful book delivery service for city residents, with more than 300 books being ordered and delivered on a daily basis. Books are ordered through the library’s digital catalogue, and readers can also participate in virtual book discussions and family reading times.   

Several cities have also made efforts to provide financial support for parents during the lockdown. Tallinn, has exempted parents from paying their share of municipal kindergarten fees until the 31st of May, and is providing financial support for school fees for parents whose children attend private kindergartens. Public playgrounds and open air sports facilities for children reopened on the 11th of May, and the city government has committed to cleaning these on a weekly basis.   

The City of Copenhagen is reimbursing parents who are keeping their children at home after daycare centres reopen. Not only does this provide a financial benefit for parents who have lost their jobs or have yet to return to work, it also frees up much needed space in daycare centres, which are only allowed to operate at half capacity, for children of key workers who are unable to take care of their children during the pandemic. In addition to education for children, workers of industries heavily impacted by the crisis need to deepen their skills to enhance their chance of finding new employment in a damaged economy after the crisis. Copenhagen City has launched an initiative to pay for adult education for workers in the hospitality and food industries. The municipality will provide free courses to those who have become unemployed as a result of the crisis to strengthen their personal competencies.   

Financial support for municipal residents  

National governments across Europe have announced generous support packages for businesses and individuals. Some local authorities have taken it upon themselves to provide further financial assistance to respond to local needs. Local authorities have a wide range of leavers they can pull to soften the financial impact of the crisis on local residents, and many authorities have used all the means available to them.   

Vilnius’ support package includes suspending interest on late payments to municipal utilities, and providing grants of up to EUR 975 for families whose incomes have drastically decreased in the crisis, with periodic grants for the most severely affected. The city also offers an additional benefit of EUR 275 for the self-employed. Residents and businesses have also been exempted from paying real estate tax during the crisis  

Riga has also introduced a crisis benefit of EUR 128 per person, for those who are unable to provide for their basic needs. Riga City Council is also working together with hotels to provide self-isolation accommodation at discounted rates, and has lowered energy and heat tariffs for city residents. The city is also seeking to pass binding regulations which will enable it to provide rent relief to businesses and individuals  

To both minimize contact between persons and provide some financial relief, Tallinn stopped the sale of public transportation tickets and made public transportation free for all until the end of may. Tallinn is also providing compensation for cancelled conferences, cultural and sporting events, in addition to the suspension of fines for late payments, tax and rental cuts. The Tallinn City Enterprise Department is also offering free business and employment rights counselling to residents.    Copenhagen, Reykjavik and Stockholm have all implemented similar measures to those in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.   

Art and culture have not been forgotten  

With an emphasis on health and social care, education, financial welfare and business support, the art and cultural industries have received less attention from national governments. Local authorities have, however, taken measures to ensure art and culture remains part of residents’ lives. In collaboration with local organisations, Vilnius city is continuously live streaming the blossoming of cherry trees in Sakura Park. The livestream has been viewed by over 30,000 people, and has become the most popular page on the city’s quarantine website.   

The Copenhagen Museum has artifacts documenting many of the city’s past crises and disasters. The museum has now started collecting items which reflect the experience of residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, and has put out an open call for suggestions of items to include in the collection. So far the collection includes signs of closures from schools and public spaces, and photos of deserted city streets and spaces.   

At the municipal level, aid packages are being put together to ensure that cultural organisations survive the crisis. The City of Copenhagen Culture and Leisure Committee will pay out all cultural grants which were due to be paid later in the year in June to provide liquidity for organisations. This is being done in addition to a special financial aid package for those who work in cultural industries. The City of Reykjavik has extended the application criteria for its municipal arts and culture grants to include self-employed artists and support their work during the pandemic and stimulate creativity within the economy. Stockholm Cultural Administration has decided not to reclaim grants that were awarded for events that were cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Instead grant receiving organisations can keep the money to support them through these troubled times. A SEK 20m budget for income support for artists has also been made available to secure the long term vitality of cultural life in Stockholm.  

Local Exit Strategies  

In addition to national exit strategies, most local authorities have put together their own phased exit strategies to facilitate a smooth and safe transition to normal life. Tallinn is currently in phase two of its municipal exit strategy, which commenced on the 18th of May. The city archives, zoo, botanic garden, libraries and museums have been allowed to reopen on the condition that strict disinfectant procedures are implemented and staff are provided with personal protective equipment. Cemeteries and churches are also to reopen for post-funeral gatherings, allowing many who have lost loved ones to grieve and commune in the traditional manner.   

The city of Vilnius is allowing cafes and restaurants to use the city’s public squares as outdoor dining space in order to place tables two meters apart, enabling them to reopen whilst maintaining social distancing guidelines. So far 18 public squares have been approved for use and 160 eating establishments have applied to the programme. The city government has also given £350,000 worth of vouchers to healthcare workers, supporting both the heroes of the pandemic and the business owners who have suffered as a result of lockdown.   

To help city residents avoid public spaces that, under normal circumstances, are the most crowded, Copenhagen Municipality is using pink ground markings to indicate areas that are prone to overcrowding. The ground markings also indicate right of way for pedestrians, to encourage people to move appropriately with safe distance from one another in public spaces. The local authorities hope that these measures will encourage city residents to avoid these areas and remain cognizant of social distancing guidelines whilst passing through.   

With lockdowns easing, many Lithuanians who were stuck in small apartments in urban centers are flocking to the country’s main resorts: Palanga, Druskininkai, Neringa and Birstonas. Eager to prevent a second wave of infections whilst allowing business to resume in the resorts, Palanga municipality has arranged for beach infrastructure and cabins to be continually disinfected. Lifeguards have also been equipped with drones that measure body temperatures, which will fly over the beaches scanning for potential Covid-19 cases.   

We hope that local authorities will continue to show exceptional leadership and creativity as Europe transitions into the next phase of the pandemic response. 

The Guardian
Copenhagen Post
The Local
Baltic News Network
NRK News
News In English
LRT News
Vilnius Municipality

Photo: Nordic Council of Ministers