This time last year, Finland was teeming with Arctic events and activities. Now, the restrictions on movement brought about by the COVID-19 crisis have forced Arctic actors such as Ambassador Petteri Vuorimäki and Senior Specialist Nina Brander – pictured here before the crisis – to retreat to their home offices, but cooperation continues
"Within the framework of the Arctic Council, co-operation goes on to the extent possible without meetings," says Petteri Vuorimäki, Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic.
“Project proposals and other documents move electronically, and we can comment on them. But as with any cooperation, people gathering together is what will take Arctic cooperation forward. You can discuss matters in video meetings, but during meetings, the things that happen in the hallways and during the coffee breaks is often as important as what is said into the microphone. ”
The calendar on the Arctic Council website still posts events for every week, but after the name of the conference or workshop, you can read either “teleconference” or “postponed”.
Petteri Vuorimäki is also responsible for Antarctic issues.
"Finland was to host the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting at the turn of May-June, but we had to cancel that meeting," Vuorimäki regrets.
The Arctic Ambassador finds that the current situation underlines the importance of international cooperation.
“This situation is not due to Finland, but to a global phenomenon. The better we are able to engage in constructive multilateral cooperation in the Arctic, the better prepared we will be to meet both opportunities and challenges in the future.”
Vuorimäki especially commends the One Health project of the Sustainable Development Working Group, in which experts from various disciplines study the interrelationships between nature, animal life and human health.
"In today’s context, it is an extremely central and important project that underlines the importance of the Arctic Council and Arctic cooperation."
Working groups continue as before
The Arctic Environment Monitoring and Assessment Program Head of Delegation Outi Mähönen says that the working group's activities have not been suspended.
“We regularly use electronic connections. In January, we sat two nights in remote meetings - in the evening because the participants live between Alaska and Moscow, and the hours possible for most of us are in the evening in Finland. The meeting scheduled for the end of April in Nuuk, Greenland, will become a teleconference. Finland was to host a climate workshop, which will also take place online. ”
Outi Mähönen admits that in a crisis situation, co-operation will change its forms.
“We need to adapt and learn new ways of working and also new ways of thinking. Compared to traditional meetings, this situation demands more work. Gathering online requires that both the chairs and the participants are patient and attentive in order to get results. ”
AMAP experts are currently preparing an assessment report on the mercury situation in the Arctic.
“We are familiar with remote connections and telecommuting. Even before, most of our cooperation took place online. Even if we cannot meet each other physically, this will not paralyze our work. ”
The Ministry for Foreign Affairs staff are also working remotely.
“We all try to do what we can. In this situation, you learn to appreciate your own colleagues and their presence in a new way, ” Petteri Vuorimäki reflects.
One of the teleworkers at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is Jari Vilén, Ambassador for Barents and Northern Dimension, who took up his new post in early March.
“I had intended to do an intensive orientation tour and meet all the key players during the spring. The calendar was wiped clean of travel in one fell swoop, but at the same pace it has filled with video conferencing, ”the ambassador says.
Jari Vilén now works from his home in Brussels.
“Hardly anyone in Europe could have believed that crossing borders, which has been a matter of course in the Schengen area, could become so complicated so quickly. Maybe this is also a good reminder to people of how things could be. When we regain our freedom, we will have learned to value the freedom of movement. ”
Cross-border cooperation across closed borders
In the Barents region, co-operation continues, although partners cannot meet face-to-face.
“Because of the long distances, we have had teleconferences before. Now we get a quick lesson on new ways of working. which we will certainly continue to make use of. We hope to have a better capacity to face challenges like this in the future. ”
Jari Vilén believes that the importance of working against a pandemic is understood everywhere, and it will also be reflected in the content and perhaps also the funding of cross-border cooperation.
Restrictions on movement severely affect Barents co-operation, admits Roman Gokkoev, who works as an official in charge of co-operation at the International Barents Secretariat in Kirkenes.
“We would love to see a positive development in border crossing statistics, but now leisure tourism is at zero and the borders are closed. We must now construct the future and strive to see beyond this exceptional phase. Now is the time to think creatively and come up with new ideas. ”
Many Barents meetings have been postponed, such as the Regional Council meeting in Joensuu in early June. The most annoying thing, according to Roman Gokkoev, is that there will not be encounters between the people from different countries. In addition to shopping trips, many events have also been cancelled.
“The Barents Winter Games were to be held in Kajaani, but unfortunately the athletes cannot compete via a video connection. The Barents Press journalist seminar has been postponed until the autumn. The silver lining is that we have already created networks, people know each other and know how to keep in touch with each other. Today, we also have the means to communicate - such an epidemic in the 1990s would have been a disaster. ”
Arctic strategy work suspended
Finland is currently updating its Arctic strategy. The steering group for the preparation of the Arctic strategy and the re-established working group of designated Arctic civil servants have decided to take a break in the preparation of the Arctic Policy Strategy due to the exceptional situation caused by the corona.
“The effects of the corona virus crisis, especially in the Arctic, may be such that the current policy definitions may become obsolete very soon. Many of the key members in the steering group are involved in corona response work. In this exceptional situation, it is difficult to prepare a long-term strategy that should take resources into account. That's why we decided to take a break from the preparation, ”says Nina Brander, Senior Specialist at the Prime Minister's Office.
The preparation of Finland’s Arctic strategy will resume as soon as the situation allows.
Text: Maija Myllylä
Main photo: Marko Junttila