We did it. All of us. Citizens and new government both.
The epidemic in Slovenia looks to be under control. The government’s measures, the citizens’ discipline, and the good fortune that we’re a country of small towns and villages have done the trick. Since May 1st, for two weeks now, we have had less than 10 new cases every day. On six days just one or even none.
I’m intensely proud of my country’s achievement right now. I have to congratulate the prime minister Janez Janša and his entire coalition government on a job well done so far. I have to congratulate the Slovenian health services and other government employees for their hard work in helping the sick, and for implementing the testing, tracking, and isolation protocols. I have to congratulate the vast majority of Slovenia’s citizens for being responsible and making the lockdown work.
I offer these congratulations entirely without caveats.
Does that mean I agree with all the political opinions of the four governing parties? Does that mean I agree with all the political opinions of the vast majority of my fellow citizens? Of course not. But that doesn’t change the facts.
We’ve all done an amazing job so far. Especially when we compare our situation to our neighbors Italy and Austria, or to other larger countries our little nation has so often looked up to. Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States. All have performed worse than us in this crisis.
Congratulations are in order.
In fact, we’ve done much better than I expected when I first arrived in Slovenia on the 19th of February. In January the previous government had collapsed when former-comedian-and-now-also-former-prime-minister Marjan Šarec had stepped down in some kind of ploy to force early elections. Or something else. It’s unclear to me. From the 23rd of February to the 13th of March, when his caretaker government was replaced by the new coalition, his mantra was, “we have everything under control, we don’t have to do anything, don’t panic everyone.”
Even as doctors and health services on the ground warned the Šarec government that they had no equipment, he, his health minister and his head of public health, kept saying they were just causing a panic. That protocols were being followed. That everything was fine. That their golden parachutes were in order.
Honestly, I thought we were going to have an absolute disaster.
In two months the new government managed to haul us back from the brink of catastrophe. Incredible.
But The Woods Are Dark
And we aren’t out of those dark woods yet.
This first pandemic of the 21st century will change Slovenia, just as it will change the world. There are opportunities and dangers ahead.
Slovenia is a small mountain country, surrounded by larger neighbors, riven by polarized politics and a dangerously partisan media.
The former prime minister Šarec went on the attack about two weeks after the new coalition took over, marshalling all his resources in an all-out effort to smear and bring down the government. He has kept at it.
Despite demonstrating incredible ineptitude mixed with a fair bit of nepotism, cronysm, and greed—par for the course for a joker taking over government, maybe?—the majority of the media scene has taken his side. Watching the evening news on the national broadcaster has been breathtaking. The shouting anchors and accusatory tone. The bias. The figures now in opposition getting far more air time than the government. It all looks very much like a tabloid propaganda project, something akin to Fox News.
The Slovenian national broadcaster is directly financed by mandatory citizen subscriptions (i.e. taxes) and it’s been actively undermining the government’s efforts during a pandemic. It doesn’t so much verge on malpractice as set up camp and host a party.
Finally, a large proportion of the Slovenia public is firmly convinced* that the current prime minister is the devil incarnate. A right-wing fascist greedy corrupt capitalist thieving arms-dealing neoliberal populist ex-communist pro-clerical orbanist un-european anti-communist free-market police-state stooge.
This portrait may seem comically excessive, but it has nevertheless successfully driven regular protests against lockdown and government and policies and just everything-Janša since mid-April.
Having seen the prime minister’s first interview on national TV after taking power in mid March, where the reporter Tanja Starič was literally twitching, spluttering and grimacing with disgust at having to actually interview Janša was absolutely mind-blowing. The kool-aid has long been in the drinking, and these divisions won’t be going away soon.
The sad fact is that this long-term, relentless assault on the current prime minister and Slovenia’s largest political party (SDS) has predictably driven it to retaliate and radicalize in its messaging. It has started to build its own communication apparatus, building its own tv station and working to activate its voting base using social media and inflammatory rhetoric. Are they using every tactic in the populist playbook to boost their support? Oh, yes. You bet.
Finally, Slovenia is a small country with an economy heavily dependent on exporting to its neighbors to the north and west and importing their tourists looking for mountains, nature, and fresh air. The pandemic has pummelled both sides of that equation. The world’s consumer is getting chopped off at its knees, grinding down the world’s export economies, hitting Slovenia hard. At the same time we have to face facts: tourism is a lame duck this year, and quite possibly next year, too. The government is predicting a 7% drop in output this year, which is brutal by any measure.
The powerful drive to topple the current government in the middle of an epidemic is already affecting its ability to ameliorate the economic fallout. The surprisingly-often-maskless protesters might well drive new infection clusters, too.
Dangers abound, and I can only hope my country will manage to thread its course. I can only implore my fellow-citizens to work together and collaborate with the government, instead of trying climb to the top of the crab pot. We’re all going to boil together if we don’t work together.
Slovenia is a small mountain country with a breathtaking natural environment and a well-educated workforce, which has managed to stymie the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
The current crisis presents it with opportunities to adapt and prosper to the changed circumstances before us.
There are now two kinds of countries tourists come from. Countries that have the virus under control (China, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel) and countries that don’t (Usania, England, France, the Netherlands, Sweden). No country in the world wants tourists from infection hotspots. No tourists from countries where the virus is under control want to travel to places where the virus is out of control.
Slovenia should strongly consider doing more to promote itself as a clean, safe, virus-free destination to countries that are also virus-free. You know, places with lots and lots of potential visitors. Like China.
Certain industries are going to be reshoring in the coming years. Pharmaceuticals. Medical equipment. Critical manufacturing. Renewable energy equipment. Slovenia has an educated workforce. It should use this crisis to put that skilled workforce to use with a national investment plan, encouraging foreign and domestic investment in the industries that will be needed to fight this pandemic and the next five-to-ten we can expect over the next century.
The IT industry is also embracing remote work. Slovenia’s environment is nigh-perfect for the remote worker. Safe. Green. Healthy. Relatively liberal. Fast and effective broadband. Low cost of living. It should strive to reduce administrative burdens on foreign workers** living in Slovenia and working remotely. Not digital nomads but digital refugees looking for a green and quiet place to live and raise their children. It’s not inconceivable that it could gain 100,000 foreign resident workers from around the world, tele-commuting to their offices for large parts of the year. Over time, the cluster effects of so many IT professionals living at least partly in Slovenia would bring many knock-on benefits.
There are certainly more opportunities, right here, now, ready for the seizing over the next three to five years.
Slovenia can seize them and I hope it does.
The borders are opening again. Some planes are flying again. All stars and flights aligning, I should be back home in Korea on Monday, ready to start my two-week quarantine.
I’ll just close again with a message for my fellow Slovenians.
Let’s be kind to ourselves. We don’t have to always compare ourselves to other nations, big and small. We measure up fine. There is no magic system that always works perfectly. It’s ok to be ourselves, with our own flaws and virtues.
Let’s change one little thing. Let’s learn to express approval. Say when we like something. Congratulate someone when they do their job well.
Yes, including our current government.
Let’s have enough heart and self-confidence to acknowledge that they have done a good job in this crisis. We’ve all done a good job in this crisis so far. It’s ok to say that. It’s a fact.
Let’s be proud of ourselves. We’ve done well. We’re doing well.
Now let’s keep up the hard work. We’re a small nation. We won’t be first in line for the vaccine, just like we weren’t first in line for protective gear. We’ll have to work together and we’ll have to save ourselves. But we’ve proved we can do it.
Peace and health.
*This is not surprising, because for decades a revolving door of other politicians, managers of state-owned and private companies, directors of government agencies, various (sometimes state-funded) non-governmental organizations, owners of media, and a fair number of journalists have worked hands in glove to manufacture Janez Janša into a useful enemy of the Slovenian little person (mali človek).
**It should also probably make taxes on work a little lower all-round, while trimming the public sector … but that’s a whole ‘nother project. Note that, again, the national broadcaster is strongly against trimming the public sector as it consists entirely of public sector employees. One does not throw flies into one’s own ointment.