In Finland, the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic has been in the Uusimaa region and especially in Helsinki. The rapid spreading of the virus and its serious risks especially for the elderly population challenged the City of Helsinki to react quickly, partially using new methods. Work was done to, among other things, track the chain of transmission, to help the elderly in new ways and to maintain different kinds of services despite the crisis.
“The biggest impact of the crisis was felt in Helsinki, which has had around 40 per cent of all the coronavirus infections in Finland. However, the City's operational capability remained at a good level and the different divisions adapted quickly to managing entirely new kinds of challenges. We have come out of the crisis well throughout and we have learned a lot, which means that we are ever stronger ahead of a possible second wave”, says Mayor Jan Vapaavuori.
The divisions of the City of Helsinki have analysed the crisis management in terms of their own functions.
The opinions of the residents on how the situation was managed have also been surveyed in the Helsinki Barometer. Further information: Spring of coronavirus changed lives of Helsinki residents, but faith in the future is strong
Social and health care services reacted with necessary promptness
Helsinki set up the coronavirus phone service and the dedicated coronavirus health stations in Laakso and Malmi immediately when the epidemic hit Helsinki to a wider extent in March. As the epidemic progressed, the testing capacity was significantly increased and the tracking of the infections intensified. In addition to the phone service, Omaolo.fi’s symptom checker became an essential route for getting tested later in the spring.
"Help has been on offer to the Helsinki residents all the time, round the clock. I still encourage all Helsinki residents to get tested immediately if any of the symptoms typical to the coronavirus occur”, says Executive Director Juha Jolkkonen at the Social Services and Health Care Division.
Unfortunately, there have been coronavirus infections at the hospitals and nursing homes in Helsinki. The epidemic has blown over at the Laakso and Suursuo hospitals. The situation in the nursing services is good as well. There are currently no inhabitants infected or exposed to the coronavirus at the nursing homes. The threshold for testing is still kept low.
During spring, group tests were performed at 26 nursing homes and in home care. No new infections were found in the tests in June and the restrictions in the services for the elderly have been gradually revoked in accordance with the recommendations of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.
The social services have been available normally all spring. The emergency conditions have burdened many customer groups, such as the disabled, family caregivers and lonely adults. Unemployment, financial difficulties and the need for food aid have increased, which has increased the need for adult social work. The situation has burdened especially those families with children who have experienced difficulties previously, but also other families, due to, for example, financial difficulties.
The number of child welfare notifications decreased in March–April compared to the same period in 2019. The decrease implies that concerns about children have not been exposed enough during the emergency conditions due to different reasons, including the schools having been closed.
In the services for the disabled, the number of clients in short-term care decreased during spring, which has put a strain on family caregivers. The support activities for having days off and the support brought to the homes was increased.
Distance learning a trial by fire for the education division
In mid-March, the education division switched to distance learning in two days, both in basic education and in upper secondary schools. About 43,000 comprehensive school pupils and 25,000 upper secondary school students switched to distance learning. A part of the courses and lectures at the Adult Education Centre were carried out through distance learning. The positive experiences gained from the distance learning and web courses can be made use of on all education levels in the future.
During the corona spring, about 20 per cent of the normal number of children participated in the early childhood education, as the guardians adhered to the recommendation of childcare at home, where possible.
In the basic education, the return to the school classrooms took place on 14 May, with consideration to spaciousness and other regulations.
“We were able to flexibly come up with additional premises for teaching, such as libraries and youth clubs. The teaching and dining was staggered and in the spring weather, education was arranged outside as well. All things considered, it can be said that the return to the schools went well”, says Executive Director Liisa Pohjolainen at the Education Division.
The Education Division carried out a survey to the pupils and students and their guardians about their experiences of distance learning.
“Almost 80 per cent of the guardians of comprehensive school pupils who answered the survey felt that the child's distance learning had gone well and a majority of the parents said that the teachers were easily reachable and that the schools provided enough information”, tells Pohjolainen.
“Obviously, there were challenges as well, for example, the youngest children needed quite a bit of help from the parents to able to do their schoolwork. Overall, the survey gave us important information which we will make use of, in the case that these arrangements have to be redone.
New ways to offer services invented in culture and leisur
The culture and leisure services were largely closed during the coronavirus epidemic, but as of the beginning of June, the cultural centres, indoor and outdoor sports premises, museums and youth clubs have been gradually opened and the summer camps and courses started. The borrowing at the libraries started on 8 May and the comprehensive services at the libraries are available as of the beginning of June.
In the beginning of the corona crisis, the Culture and Leisure Division created a digital dimension to the services, in order to be able to offer entertaining leisure activities during the exceptional circumstances. Some of these were the Virtual Annantalo for families with children, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’s streamed performances, the digital museum tours and workshops and the daily Jumppahetki broadcasts produced jointly by YLE and the sports services. Other arrangements included the books bags and the Helsinki Help for the elderly, which was coordinated by the Culture and Leisure Division.
“The culture and leisure services make us feel free and like city residents. The associations, cultural actors and our own personnel showed resistance and flexibility by developing new ways to offer content, joy, help and consolation. The joy of the people at the services reopening shows that the libraries, culture, sports and youth work were sorely missed”, says Executive Director Tommi Laitio at the Culture and Leisure Division.
The youth services reacted to the young people’s need to receive information, support and activities during the coronavirus outbreak. When the youth premises were closed, the youth services in the metropolitan area were mainly working locally on-site and across the municipality borders in the metropolitan area, as well as by using social media and digital tools. The youth workers were trained, among other things, for working in chat services and detached youth work. New channels such as Discord and TikTok were also introduced.
The City offered quick support for advancing new activities in sports, youth initiatives and culture, community and distance activities digitally or by other means. The total amount of the quick support was 300,000 euros and the maximum support per applicant was 5,000 euros. The objective of the quick support was to make rapid use of new innovative and digital ways of engaging the city residents.
The City has also decided that support granted for culture and leisure will not be claimed for recovery, if the activities conclude or do not materialise due to the coronavirus epidemic.
The Helsinki Help for the elderly was arranged as a joint effort between the City and its partners
In order to curb the coronavirus epidemic, all citizens over the age of 70 in Finland were asked to stay at home and to refrain from running non-essential errands. Going outside was recommended only to further the own functional ability and well-being, without being in close contact with other people. In Helsinki, this concerned around 80,000 persons, of which 27,000 were aged over 80.
The Helsinki Help, the collaboration between the City of Helsinki, the Helsinki Parish Union and volunteers to help elderly Helsinki residents, was published immediately when the epidemic hit and the restrictions started on 20 March. It was especially important to make the everyday routines, such as going grocery shopping or to the pharmacy, fluent.
The main principles of the operating model for Helsinki Help were compiled in a week and the project was coordinated at the Culture and Leisure Division. The service was opened on 27 March with telephone calls to Helsinki residents over 80. Later, in May, the telephone call were extended to all residents over 75. On 30 March, Helsinki Help opened its telephone service, where all city residents over 70 and in need of help were able to get conversation support and help for running errands. In addition to the telephone service, 18 coordination points were established in different parts of Helsinki to help with the ordering, buying and distributing of groceries.
Further information: Helsinki Helpline errand service to wind down in July
Urban environment’s operations from detailed plans to work sites uninterrupted
The operations of the Urban Environment Division have been functioning almost as usual during the emergency conditions, even though a large part of the personnel switched quickly to telecommuting. For example, the detailed planning, the traffic and street planning, the numerous street and house construction sites and the maintenance of streets and parks have been progressing as usual without interruptions and according to schedule.
The challenges of the emergency conditions have been solved, for example, by looking for possible temporary premises for hospitals. Measures have also been taken to ease the difficult situation of the entrepreneurs. Applying for beer garden permits, arranging temporary activities and rent payments for ground and spaces have been eased. The establishing of a temporary restaurant area on the Senate Square for the summer has been enabled rapidly.
The Urban Environment Division made a fluent switch to telecommuting. The routines for working virtually have been in use previously, and the exceptional situation has made them commonplace. When the division moves to its new premises in the autumn, working in many locations will already be familiar to all. This spring, for instance, a fairly large resident event was arranged successfully as an electronic event.
Some 80 per cent of the personnel in the division has been telecommuting.
“At least the same 80 per cent is able to use the opportunities of telecommuting and other multiple-location working methods really well in the new circumstances next autumn. This is good training for the specific things that working life is turning into. We are able to serve the city residents even better and with improved flexibility”, says Executive Director Mikko Aho at the Urban Environment Division of the benefits of the exceptional spring.
Situation of entrepreneurs eased in many ways
In the midst of the corona crisis, many services, like the City's enterprise information service and employment service, work as usual, but remotely.
As initial measures in the beginning of the epidemic, the City Executive Office's Economic Development started a free information service for all entrepreneurs, to make it through the coronavirus situation. NewCo Helsinki’s business and start-up information service helps entrepreneurs in problematic situations and maintains a comprehensive list of services for entrepreneurs to sort out the situation. A record number of entrepreneurs have been given advice on the phone and help is still needed and provided.
The burden of the sole entrepreneurs who have suffered financial losses due to the coronavirus has been eased with a lump sum compensation of 2,000 euros. As things stand in mid-June, this operating support has been granted to around 5,000 entrepreneurs.
The recruitment did not stop with the coronavirus outbreak as the demand for workers even grew in some branches. The City’s business coordinators have been actively contacting the companies and helping job applicants and employers meet.
The City relieved corporate tenants of rent payments from the beginning of April to the end of June. Rent is not collected for market square places or uncovered terraces either during this time. Tenants of business plots were given reliefs from paying the rent under certain conditions.
On request of the entrepreneur, the City may also grant a three-month payment term for rents falling due in July-September. No interest is accrued during the payment arrangement. This brings financial stability, for example, when the entrepreneur is waiting for payments from the Government’s support programmes.
As an added means of flexibility, the companies have been able to ask the City to bring forward the payment dates of invoices directed to the City.
In the future, the City will consider exceptional opportunities to support players in the fields of culture, sports and innovation. These fields have been specifically mentioned as exceptions in the EU legislation on State aid. For example, site rent reliefs for event organisers and unification of rent practices have also been processed as possible measures.
The impact of the corona crisis was severe especially in the restaurant industry, but also in tourism and events. The City has invited actors in these industries to discuss the current situation and the future. The discussions have brought up many ideas, the development of which has now started.
“The unanticipated crisis situation has brought on substantial challenges, but new thinking as well. The restaurant terraces, which have expanded to new areas thanks to the increased permit flexibility, have brought new life to the city centre and to other areas in June. For example, the people in the tourist and events industry have been very happy with the City collaborations, and I believe that a lot of offerings will arise in that field that would normally not have been dealt with”, says Director of Economic Development Marja-Leena Rinkineva.
Crisis communications centralised
The communications during the corona crisis were coordinated at the City Executive Office. The central administration's energetic communications co-operation with the divisions made for fast and consequent communications. Focus was also laid on multilingual communications and the utilisation of different communication channels, such as social media.
“During the crisis, our communication experts worked efficiently and flexibly as teams, crossing the division and group borders. We produced information in numerous channels, but at the same time, inspiration in the form of virtual events. Under pressure, our most important tasks were to serve the media and produce up-to-date and correct news content. Here, intensifying the internal collaboration efforts ensured the best result”, summarises Chief Communications Officer Liisa Kivelä.
The Helsinki Channel was developed into an even better platform for the City’s video footage and streams, and was used for broadcasting different kinds of content from culture and gymnastic exercises to events and fact snippets.
As a new and efficient means of communication, the Helsinki Channel hosted the Mayor’s information as live broadcasts several times a week almost from the beginning of the crisis, and later once or twice a week. The broadcasts reached the residents and the City employees through the media as well.
To complement its own estimations, the City of Helsinki has ordered an external report of the decision-making and operations during the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic. Based on the results of the report, the City plans further action to improve the ways in which a possible second wave or another similar exceptional situation is managed.
Photo: Paul Williams