The Corona Bubble in Finland and Dealing with Being Homesick

by Audrey

If you’re like me, you probably have reader’s fatigue when it comes to articles and blog posts about COVID-19. I also write marketing content for a living, and every one of my clients has requested me to write about the topic for them as well. But, no matter how many articles I read (or write), I can only truly know what it’s like in my own city. Since Finland is a pretty small and obscure country in comparison to the rest of the world, I wanted to share what corona in Finland has been like. I’ve had a lot of friends and family comment on how “lucky I am to be in Finland.” And they’re absolutely right. While I’m super grateful to be here, it has also been difficult watching the situation back home in LA from afar. It has stirred up all kinds of emotions on top of being homesick.

Coronavirus in Finland vs California

First, let’s get the factual stuff out of the way. Here’s a comparison of the cases in Finland vs. California. Just keep in mind that the population of California (41 million) is much larger than Finland (5.5 million).

As you can see, there are much fewer cases here, even relative to the population size. The cases have been steadily declining and when the government granted the re-opening of restaurants and businesses back in June, there weren’t any major surges. In fact, there was a day in July when there were 0 new cases reported.

In comparison to the rest of the world, Finland is considered one of the few “safe” countries to travel to. Here’s a map from the Finnish Department of Health and Welfare which depicts a traffic light model that helps to assess the risk of corona infection associated with traveling abroad. Apologies it’s only available in Finnish, but here’s what the colors mean:

  • Green: The incidence of COVID-19 is below the government-set threshold, less than 8-10 cases per 100,000 people per 14 days. Finland falls into this category.
  • Orange: The incidence of COVID-19 exceeds the limit set by the government. The incidence is 10-25 cases per 100,000 inhabitants per 14 days.
  • Red: The incidence of COVID-19 is very high, with more than 25 cases per 100,000 population per 14 days.
Source: Finland Department of Health and Welfare

COVID-19 government actions in Finland

Quarantining in Helsinki started in March. The government made an official announcement on TV recommending that everyone stay home and only leave when necessary. I can’t say for sure, but whenever there was a televised government announcement, it seemed like most people tune in and listen to any instructions. I really get the sense that the citizens here trust in their government and follow the rules. It’s also pretty rad that our Prime Minister is a 34-year-old woman, the youngest PM in the world. Not to mention her coalition government was formed with all five party leaders being women – the majority being under 40-years of age.

Luckily at my job, most people were already working remotely a few days a week, so we had the resources and infrastructure to start working fully remotely. I think the difficulties of working remotely transcends across the globe, so I won’t go into that. But let’s just say working on a laptop from a kitchen table caused a lot of stiff necks and unnecessary trips to the fridge. 🍩

Fun fact: Finland has had the biggest shift to telecommuting of any European Union country during the coronavirus pandemic with over 75% of the population working remotely.

The strict quarantining ended around May, but restaurants and bars didn’t really open back up until June. For the most part, people stayed at home, and there weren’t any protests about it. If you talk to people living here, I think we can all agree that the government has done a great job reacting quickly and Finns in turn have done their part to follow their recommendations. It seems as if we were able to suffocate the disease and contain it for now.

If you look back at the Google image of the cases in Finland, you can see that there was a slight increase in cases in August, but again the government reacted quickly and made a recommendation for people to start wearing masks on public transportation and in any crowded indoor places. While it’s not required, I noticed the day after this announcement, many people were wearing masks throughout the city. By the way, if you’re in Helsinki and need one, I got mine at 1981 Helsinki. They make custom ones that fit really well!

Just yesterday, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) released a contact tracing app called Koronavilkku. The app utilizes Bluetooth in peoples’ cell phones to help you find out whether you may have been exposed to coronavirus. If you have a coronavirus test and are diagnosed as infected, you can use the app to share this anonymously with those you have been in close contact with. In just one day, the app was already downloaded 1.4 million times. That’s like 25% of Finland’s population! 😲

I’m continually impressed with the way things are handled here and for the most part, I feel safe.

Quarantining in Helsinki

Starting in March, I stayed home for about 2 months straight without really seeing anyone. I know this was tough for everyone around the world, but it did make for a lot of quality time with my 11 year old Frenchie and tons of interesting activities at home like:

  • airbnb online experiences
  • indoor picnics + lots of wine 🥂
  • zoom dance parties, game nights, and drinks with friends 💃🏽
  • virtual live yoga 🧘🏽‍♀️
  • building indoor forts ⛺️
  • streaming operas and broadway shows 🎶
  • houseparty games with friends 🎮
  • more wine 🍷
  • online courses: my faves were the Yale Science of Wellbeing and Ahref’s Blogging for Business 👩🏽‍🏫
  • plus much more that I can’t remember

Oh, and how can I forget all the socially-distanced outdoor activities like daily walks, hikes, and summer cottage trips. I also decided to pick up rollerblading again, which I haven’t done since I was a teenager!

Quarantining also helped me to connect more with my family and friends back home. Going through the same thing across the globe is such a unique experience that really connected us and made us closer. And for that, I’m grateful because timezones and busy lives can really get in the way when you’re living abroad.

By about May, people were allowed to gather in groups of 10 or less, so I started to have some socially distanced outdoor picnics with a few friends here and there. It’s just a bit tough to have outdoor picnics in Finland during this time of year because it’s still pretty damn cold, like I’m talking below-freezing cold. I think the jackets say it all here…

The summer bubble in Helsinki

As I mentioned earlier, once the government felt like we had the situation in control, businesses started opening back up in early June. At first, restaurants were allowed (not bars) to be open until 10 pm. After a couple of weeks of observation, and no surges in cases, bars were then allowed to be open until midnight. After a couple of weeks of that, the opening hours limitations were lifted, but there were still restrictions on building capacities and keeping tables two meters apart.

Slowly but surely, it started to feel “normal” in Helsinki. For a while, it almost felt like the disease didn’t exist here. Open-air parties started to become rampant along with restaurant and bar terraces popping up everywhere. The only issue is, summer is just about over here, and terrace season is only possible for a couple of months in Helsinki.

But I’m definitely not complaining, and can honestly say we had a beautiful summer here with a good amount of sunny, warm days. That’s a big deal around here because I’ve heard of frigid and rainy summers. It’s like the city becomes alive when it’s a sunny day, and everyone feels the need to be outside to savor any signs of warmth. Unlike in LA where you typically only see people tanning at beaches and pools, you can find Finns sunbathing in bikinis on a random patch of grass, as long as the sun is shining there. 👙

Since we couldn’t travel to other countries at the beginning of summer, many people took the opportunity to explore beyond Helsinki. My insta stories were filled with people camping and hiking all throughout Finland. It seemed as if people were falling in love with their own country. I felt like we were living in a bubble, able to see friends and go out to restaurants, bars, art museums, beer floats, and half-filled movie theaters.

There is speculation about a second wave hitting Finland, but now that the summer is over, and the hygge season is fast approaching, I think Finns will be naturally hibernating anyway 🥶. At least I spent a lot of time in my apartment last year during the cold and dark months, which means from about October through March!

Homesick

When I would share photos or stories of my summer whereabouts, I often got comments from friends and family in the U.S. about how lucky I am, and how horrid the situation is there. Sometimes it made me feel guilty about how good we have it in Finland. I think that from an outside perspective, it may look like I’m being irresponsible or perhaps throwing our situation in peoples’ faces but, I always followed the rules. For me, social media has become a way for me to keep up with the people I care about back home and stay in the know of what’s going on in LA. It’s also a way for me to share my life and provide a window into Helsinki.

When the world was quarantining and there were so many stories about people not being able to be with their loved ones during their last hours, it broke my heart. It also terrified me knowing that at any minute, it could be one of my loved ones, or even myself, and I wouldn’t be able to just rush back home. My youngest brother is a nurse, who lives with our parents, so you can imagine how frightening that is. It was and is still really tough, knowing I can’t easily be there.

I was supposed to go back home in May for my other brother’s wedding, but it got postponed because of corona. He has since rescheduled it to November, but it’s looking like that might not happen either. That means that I might not be able to go back home at all this year. Some of my best friends had also planned a big trip here in August to come to visit me, but that obviously needed to be canceled with the U.S. international travel restrictions. While I’m super grateful to be in Finland, I’m also really homesick. There’s nothing I’d like more than to be with my friends and family, especially when the holidays roll around.

The Black Lives Matter movement

On top of the pandemic and being homesick, everything going on with the BLM movement in the U.S. has been devastating to watch from afar. I’ve tried to get involved in ways that I can from Finland, but not being in the trenches and living in LA has made me feel detached. I can’t fully explain it, but I guess that’s why I’ve described it as living in a bubble. At first, I felt helpless, and that there wasn’t much I can do from here, but slowly I found ways to contribute.

The first thing was to get more educated about the movement in the U.S. and also learn about racism in Finland. On the surface level, Finland seems (and probably is) one of the most egalitarian countries, especially when you see a government filled with young, badass women. But, when you dig deeper and talk to black people in Finland, many can attest to the racism they’ve experienced here. One of my closest friends here is African-American and she has shared many stories of racism that she’s encountered.

According to the Being Black in the EU report, Finland is actually considered one of the most racist European countries. One thing to note though is that when it comes to trusting the police, Finland came on top. On a scale of 0 to 10, Finland trusted the police the most, rating their trust at 8.2 on the scale. The trust of law enforcement authorities was lowest in Austria, at 3.6 on the scale.

I’ve also had a couple of racist encounters. Both times it was older men assuming I was from Thailand. One man even tried talking to me in Thai. It’s always the same type of experience though whether I’m in Finland or any other country. I say I’m American, then get the question, “yeah but where are you from?” My response: I’m from the United States. 🙃

Another way I was able to get involved from Finland, was by joining the BLM protest and march here in Helsinki. It was pretty moving to see how many people showed up. Peaceful protestors of all ages and backgrounds were present at the event, which included speakers from local activist groups, academics, entrepreneurs, and artists. I had heard there was a BLM protest a couple of years back that had less than a 100 people, but this protest gathered thousands of people at Senate square.

Another important way to get involved was to make sure I vote for the U.S. presidential election. Luckily I’m able to submit an absentee ballot online from abroad. If you’re trying to vote from abroad, make sure you know the absentee voting process. In order to get your absentee ballot online, you need to first send in a Federal Post Card Application, every year you’re voting, well in advance.

A quick funny story about that… the application itself was easy, but boy did I go through some hoops. I was able to print the application, but there were specific instructions to print the mailing details directly on an envelope. You aren’t allowed to have any stickers or tape on the envelope, which means you can’t use labels. No big deal right? Wrong! FedEx and Kinkos do not exist here. I couldn’t find any similar print shops, so I went to the post office. The post office didn’t do printing, and when I asked where I could do such a thing they recommended a photo printing shop or the library. Well I went to both of those places, and neither of them could print directly on envelopes. I spent an entire day running around trying to figure out how to print on an envelope, which by the way I could only buy in packs of five. Eventually, I found someone with a home printer, which I was able to print the damn thing from.

While I continue to try and educate myself, it can be overwhelming trying to keep up with the flood of news and social media posts. I want to stay connected with what’s happening back home and share that with people living in Finland. And vice versa, share my experiences in Finland with Americans and other outsiders. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like living in LA during these times. And with all the fake or unverified news circulating around, I sometimes find it hard to use my voice because then I feel the imposter syndrome coming on. But I guess for now my strategy is to practice gratitude, be open to continually learn, and hold the people I love close. If you’re an American living abroad, I’d love to hear about your experiences too. 💖

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