Back 2020.04.06

The other side of Covid-19: stagnant civil society in the Baltic State rose up to a challenge

It is a global phenomenon that people unite as one when they have a common goal. In 1989, the Baltic States saw an unprecedented unity when 2 million people (roughly a third of population in the Baltics) joined their hands to form a human chain spanning 675.5 kilometres (419.7 mi) in order to express their disapproval of the Soviet occupation. At the time, the unity continued to flourish for another three years or so in Lithuania, until it was clear that 50 years of Soviet occupation was finally over. What happened next? Lithuania persevered to grow as an independent state and it was quite successful in that: it joined the EU and NATO in 2004, the euro in 2015, and finally the OECD in 2018. Nonetheless, even upon reaching these milestones, it never saw the unity that it once had.

At the outset of 2020, the world was struck by a global pandemic of Covid-19. Needless to say, Lithuania was one of the countries strongly affected, and adopted the same strict measures of quarantine and self-isolation as the rest of the world. However, something else happened at this stage. According to Eurostat, in 2015 only about 16.3% of population in Lithuania was involved in formal and informal voluntary activities in the society. It is no secret that before Covid-19, it was a real challenge to find someone involved in voluntary activities outside their household or work environment. Today, we cannot give numbers yet, but we can share some of the numerous examples, which show that the stagnant civil society in Lithuania rose to a challenge as one.

As soon as Lithuania found out that coronavirus was endangering the elderly part of the society, a volunteer initiative called Strong Together was born. In the ageing society, with the demographic pyramid strongly dented by the international migration of the youth (at least 10% of the society has moved abroad since Lithuania joined the EU in 2004), the involvement of young volunteers was crucial. In three weeks, more than 3000 volunteers joined the initiative. At first sight, this may appear as a petty number to those coming from large EU member states, such as Germany or France. However, by proportion, 3000 volunteers are equivalent to 0.1% of the society. National basketball team stars, such as Mantas Kalnietis, and companies like the largest retailer in the Baltics, Maxima, have joined the cause.

Another 1000 individuals or more took part in the virtual hackathon Hack the Crisis. Challenges that were tackled during the event included disruptions to the supply chain, information verification and assistance to businesses in competing in digital economy. Solutions proposed during the hackathon have been included in ‘There Is No Quarantine on the Internet’, a governmental program seeking to assist the country’s SMEs in adapting their businesses to e-commerce. Another product of the hackathon is an initiative ‘Learning Does Not Stop During Quarantine’, aimed at encouraging businesses to donate their computers that are often deemed to be outdated but are still perfectly fine. Computers are needed for over 35 000 children in Lithuania to ensure that the learning process continues, especially with all the formal educational activity in the country now carried out online.

There are many more inspiring initiatives across Lithuania: over 150 health professionals provide health consultations online on MEDO platform, designer Robert Kalinkin and his team give away 20 000–30 000 face masks a day, and public libraries employ their 3D printers to produce over 12 000 face shields to local restaurants providing free giveaway food to medical staff. However, not all initiatives are directed towards Lithuania only. Inventors are working on simple 3D respiratory assistance device that does not need electricity. This is particularly relevant for the developing world with extremely large populations and electricity outages still an occurrence. If the prototype succeeds, Paulius Lideikis, the co-founder of Under Pressure, wants to make it freely available to those in need.

It is encouraging to witness so many public initiatives rise in a society often accused of the lack of involvement. The number of these initiatives is also staggering since many people are driven back by the uncertainty about the health system’s ability to endure the virus. In these times, it is fair to say that for objective reasons not everyone can help, and those who cannot, do their bit by staying at home. While nearly empty streets and unused public transportation prove the commitment to act collectively, drone ‘portraits of the quarantine’ reflect how the Lithuanian society copes with the crisis and tries not to lose hope for the better future. Here are some of the moments from the quarantine in Lithuania captured by Lithuanian photographer Adas:

It may be a bit too effusive to claim that the society in Lithuania acts as collectively as in the times of the quest for freedom.  Nonetheless, the collective action and involvement to create a common good is unprecedented in modern Lithuania and, as the global pandemic goes away, we hope that the involvement of the civil society will have a lasting effect.

Photo: Andrius Aleksandravičius