The old Grand Duchy of Lithuania was variously described and compared to classic Arcadia, with its bucolic, rustic landscapes and woods, and the supposed tranquillity of its agrarian population. These rhetorical traditions persisted into modern nationalism, including the idea of Arcadian naivety and fragility in the face of calamities like war or plague. Faced with a pandemic, Lithuanians are shocked, try to ignore it, or blame the situation on institutions or various "others".
Lithuania is comparably removed from larger Covid-19 infection flows. Nevertheless, moralising and classist finger-pointing or blame shifting is quite visible in some tragicomic, Molière-like situations, when medics are both sung about as heroes and blamed for being careless, cruel and selfish.
Let's take a look at some of the facts:
Scope and nature of the quarantine
- National stay-at-home measures were introduced on 16 March.
- Initially, quarantine measures were introduced until 27 March. The likelihood is that this will be extended until the middle or end of May, although small businesses can be reopened from 20 April. Restrictions are then likely to be tightened when the number of cases will increase sharply.
- All public meetings and the majority of commerce is prohibited, cross-border movement is controlled, and everyone is monitored as well as obliged to stay in obligatory isolation for two weeks when coming from abroad.
- Most public administration and educational service infrastructure is closed to citizens.
- From 15 April, all medics have been obliged to register their place of work and position to the national authorities.
- If you are outdoors in groups of more than two people, you can be fined by the police.
- On 6 April, wearing masks in public was introduced, and they could be obtained in all pharmacies and in most supermarket chains.
- The national chemical industry has been subsidised to produce disinfectant liquids, which are still not widely obtainable.
- There is a national hotline for all Covid-19 questions and cases.
Incidence of virus infections as of 16 April 2020
- 137 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and are in hospital.
- 14 people are in a critical condition.
- 8 people are on lung support and are using ventilator equipment.
- 138 people have recovered from infection.
- The overall number of confirmed infections stands at 1,091.
- The number of Covid-19 tests that have been carried out is 44,677.
Political tensions related to Covid-19
- The liberal/libertarian opposition has been the harshest critic of the current farmer/centrist and ethnic minority coalition (accusing it of incompetence and intrusion into people's personal freedom and private lives).
- The Public Health Minister and Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis (who is a former police officer) – both Lithuanian Peasants and Greens party / Lietuvos valstiečių ir žaliųjų partija– are variably criticised, either for incompetence or for authoritarianism, although they do not show signs of the latter at least. Meanwhile, institutional response measures and their success are relatively acceptable in the EU context, judging by comparably low incidence and mortality rates.
- There is a confirmed, widespread presence of disorientating fake news and conspiracy theory memes on social networks and in fringe (usually far-right) portals. The majority of this content has been created by the Russian Troll Factory.
- The most controversial issues are:
- the temporary postponement of all abortion services for women until the end of the quarantine. This is still being debated and has not been confirmed by institutional decree.
- the apparent shortage of medical masks for medics and the general population. Although this has largely been solved (masks are available thanks to Chinese humanitarian help), they are of a debatable quality, and there is a real lack of N95 masks.
- the enforced isolation for incoming citizens or non-citizens, which seems like a violation of basic rights. Many legal experts are calling for clear limitations (at least in terms of time, as a temporary measure) for such practices.
- As of now, there are no real extra-constitutional power claims from the ruling coalition or the Prime Minister. Although, a rhetoric involving some "hard measures" can be observed.
Observable socioeconomic tensions
- There is a shortage of food for homeless and destitute people (with over 50 percent more requests according to Food Bank Lithuania).
- There has been a sharp increase in child helpline phone calls relating to depression in children and teenagers, and to suicidal or self-mutilation fantasies and attempts (no reliable numbers).
- There has been a sharp and continuing rise in psychiatric hospital admissions throughout Lithuania (according to the head of the Nemenčinė clinical psychiatric hospital, which forecasts an overflow in June).
- Police have reported that incidences of domestic violence against women and children are three times more likely.
- There are no reliable statistics on how many people will lose their jobs, but economists and job market experts say that there may be at least a twofold increase in joblessness, up to 20 percent or higher in the summer.
On the other hand, younger millennials and activists from generations Z and Y have been trying to organise actions of solidarity, sharing good, constructive tips over social media and encouraging stories of personal resilience. None other than left-minded organisations and activists are also arranging – and for the first time on such a scale and at such a pace – mutual help coordination initiatives online. This is a first for our survivalist, post-Soviet society.
As in other countries, the public sphere is full of fake news and conspiracy theories concerning the spread of Covid-19. However, there is no hard opposition to quarantine measures nor any civil unrest. Nobody knows how Lithuanians will react when the economic toll of the pandemic becomes more apparent. After the Great Recession in 2008, there was virtually no real protest movement or action. Could it be that Covid-19 will change all that and bring some real political, democratic and anti-capitalist protests to our dreamy, neoliberal, Lithuanian Arcadia?
This remains to be seen.