BBC.com featured today a video piece on “Estonia’s ‘corona island’“, as they put it, that is, island Saaremaa that finds itself completely cut off from the mainland under the harsh COVID-19 measures taken in Estonia.
Whether or not it is nice to label an island a ‘corona island’ because there are many diagnosed cases, is a topic of its own. At the moment of writing, Estonia had one of the highest testing rates per 1 million inhabitants (#10 worldwide), while the deaths per 1 million are not of the same range, nor the amount of people needing emergency care. But the situation for the health care on the island is of course strained and the everyday life gravely disturbed. For an island that today lives largely off tourism, this will be a hard summer.
Saaremaa is not the only Estonian island that is off limits for non-locals: only locals can access Hiiumaa, Vormsi, Muhumaa, Kihnu (The Isle of Women, according to the Guardian, New York Times, Al Jazeera and other foreign news outlets) and Ruhnu. Pretty much the same islands that were off limits also during the Soviet period. Cutting off the Estonian islands from the mainland not only keeps the virus off the mainland, but it also keeps the mainlanders off the islands. With most of non-essential business closed and people working online, going to “nature” has become extremely popular. You can find three Estonians per every peri-urban blueberry bush – and many of them grow in formerly restricted border zones, now often designated as Natura 2000 nature protection areas. Without restrictions, the flux of mainlanders to their summer houses on the islands would be sure to suffocate the islands’ healthcare system that is not meant to receive such numbers of seriously ill patients.
Interesting for Cold War Coast in this sad story, is how cutting off the islands from the mainland Estonia revokes Soviet-time memories of the border zone – something very briefly mentioned even in the BBC video clip. The crises had barely began when people started to joke: it is like the Soviet times – you can’t get to Finland by boat, you are not allowed to visit the island and there is no toilet paper in the shops. During the Soviet period, visits to island were possible only with special permits. For land rats like myself, this meant having an island resident friend who sent a special invitation. My family went once, not to Saaremaa, but Hiiumaa, and despite being a kid back then, I still remember the border control checking the permits. This remained my only experience with document control at a border until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cold War memories are further spurred by masks that we were so often drilled to take on and even fabricate ourselves from gauze in a discursive exercise against a nuclear attack (where they would be completely useless). Sweden in the West is once again this political other where people for some reason move around freely.
It is of course not only in the Estonian memories where a global crises triggers Cold War memories. Cold War has shaped discursive practices both on Western and Eastern side for half of a century and it is surely one of the reasons why many governments find it difficult to speak of a global danger without evoking war metaphors (cf Joseph Masco, “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis” from 2010). An imagination of a global pandemic is often not so different from the imagination of a global nuclear war, where the invisible enemy spread by foreigners threatens to kill us all. Right wing US media has even found it necessary to emphasise that the country’s nuclear war capacity has not been reduced by the virus.
For Cold War Coasts project, the island lockdown means that our field work on border zones is postponed to unknown future. But given the mnemonic effect that the isolation measures seem to have, it is perhaps not only bad news. Perhaps many memories resurface because of relived isolation? We hope that the virus will remain under control and the islanders can soon share their memories with us.