Due to lockdowns and border closures around the world, Covid-19 has necessitated a shift online for individuals and businesses operating in the public and private spheres. Many countries were taken by surprise by the sudden need to do so. Not Estonia.
The digital nation has spent the past 25 years developing advanced e-governance infrastructure for its citizens and residents, built on foundations of a strong digital identity system and secure data exchange or “X Road”. These developments have not only raised the profile of the small Baltic nation on the world stage of digital transformation but also put it on the front foot in its response to the pandemic.
From a seamless, countrywide uptake of remote work, to leading the global tech community to “hack the crisis”, this article considers some of the ways Estonia has lived up to its digital nation status in the face of a pandemic.
The Covid-19 situation in Estonia
Estonia has not escaped the devastating effects of Covid-19.
At the time of writing, over 90,000 tests have been carried out in Estonia, of which about 2,000 have been positive for the virus and 69 people have died. Thanks to a quick government response, widespread community acceptance of social distancing rules and active investment in testing, the virus has been brought under manageable levels for the health authorities.
Ninety nine per cent of Estonia’s government services are available online. There is already a high level of public trust in e-services thanks to the emphasis on transparency, data protection, and security against cyber attacks
Estonia has also not been immune to the pandemic’s economic effects, with economists forecasting a contraction of its GDP and an increase in the rate of unemployment this year. The effects have largely been felt in the trade/manufacturing, tourism/hospitality, and transport sectors. Yet the country’s strength in digital industries has allowed it to adapt to the situation quickly, implement digitally integrated policy tools in support of citizenry, and enable a proactive, forward-thinking response.
Provision of public services unaffected
Ninety nine per cent of Estonia’s government services are available online. There is already a high level of public trust in e-services thanks to the emphasis on transparency, data protection, and security against cyber attacks. After Covid-19 reached Estonia in late February 2020, e-governance and other online services were unaffected by lockdowns and travel restrictions. The lack of disruption extended public trust to the crisis response.
Estonian schools already used e-learning methods for several years prior to the pandemic. Digital health records and e-prescriptions eased Covid-19’s added burden on the healthcare system and also limited unnecessary contact between frontline workers and citizens. The procedures for workers and businesses to apply for unemployment benefits, relief loans and grants, or tax relief, were seamlessly integrated into the existing e-governance platform.
Having public services already online freed up time for policymakers in the government to concentrate on ensuring the public health system was sufficiently resourced and addressing the expected economic downturn, both immediately and in the long term.
With its strong digital foundations, Estonia has developed a flourishing startup environment and a culture of innovation in business, academia, and civil society
Seamless transition to remote work and entrepreneurship
Thanks to Estonia’s digital infrastructure, in particular the widespread use of digital signatures, the shift of almost an entire country’s workforce online as a result of Covid-19 did not cause issues for decision-making, bandwidth or overload the country’s digital services. Civil servants easily transitioned to full-time home office conditions after one day of testing. The main telecommunications providers gave their customers unlimited data during the crisis.
As an extension of its own digital capabilities, Estonia has contributed to the growth of and ability to remote work for years. Companies like Skype and TransferWise trace their origins to Estonia. This cosmopolitan mindset is also seen in the public sector. Through e-Residency, Estonia opened up access to its digital services to the world, enabling digital nomads and location-independent entrepreneurs to run their businesses online from anywhere.
Hacking the crisis
With its strong digital foundations, Estonia has developed a flourishing startup environment and a culture of innovation in business, academia, and civil society. Estonia’s digital ecosystem is thus not purely made up of government actors; in fact, the government actively encourages and incentivises the private sector to move into or create markets for products and services it cannot or is unable to offer. Throughout the crisis, these private sectors have worked with the government to solve challenges and create solutions, ensuring a multistakeholder response.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the national hackathon, Hack the Crisis, was organised in less than a day by Estonian company Garage48 and government innovation lab Accelerate Estonia. It brought together over 1000 people from diverse professions hacking tech-based solutions over 48 hours. As a result, Suve, the Covid-19 answer bot, is already in use on Estonian Government websites and koroonakart remains the country’s official Covid-19 data repository. Ultimately, the national hackathon developed into an international Hack the Crisis community and sparked over 50 others around the world, as well as the Global Hack.
Being an advanced digital nation may not have prevented Covid-19 from affecting Estonia, but it did help in its response. Public services continued online despite lockdowns and freed up time for the government to adapt and test solutions in response to the social, political, and economic consequences of the crisis.
The case of Estonia provides a useful framework for policymakers around the world as it demonstrates a real-life example of the value of digitally transforming governance structures and services, even during a pandemic. It also provides a few broad lessons for policymakers looking to implement similar structures in their jurisdictions:
- Invest in long term digital transformation;
- Emphasise trust, transparency and security;
- Employ a multistakeholder approach and involve business, academia, and civil society.