Nothing is as it was before the coronavirus crisis. Empty streets, closed shops, home office. Politicians are now particularly requested to assume responsibility – and at the same time are affected themselves. In Latvia, the virus has even directly impacted the whole government and most the cabinet members isolated themselves temporarily following exposure to an infected person.
This has prompted a radical work-from-home experiment and threw into question the ability of the government to manage the response to the outbreak.
"Let's stay calm and continue to work. Together we can do it," Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš wrote on Twitter, announcing that the government would work remotely without meeting in person but continue to operate as planned. He himself went into self-quarantine on March 21 after learning that a member of the Latvian parliament tested positive for the coronavirus. Several ministers followed – and like Kariņš immediately complied with medical advice with regard to testing for the coronavirus.
Kariņš tested negative for the coronavirus, but nevertheless decided to complete the two-week quarantine and continued to work from outside the office, limiting his public appearances to videoconferences. By this, he has been
leading by example in a try to persuade Latvians to take the threat of the virus seriously.
"All of us need to change our habits and reorganize our work processes in line with health protection requirements", Kariņš said. "You have to simply get used to it!“
While it was not officially revealed from where he led the country during self-isolation, Kariņš seemed to have carried out his duties from his home in the capital, Rīga. This could be filtered out from an interview that the 55 year old bespectacled head of government gave the private Latvian radio station SWH – and where he shared some colourful and lively insights how it is to be in self-quarantine and to work from home.
Talking about the new remote working regime, Kariņš was frank about his daily routine that was anything else but usual. “In the morning I was very happy, I spent almost 40 minutes outside in the garden. Wonderful weather! My God, how beautiful the sun was shining. I walked a bit through the garden, breathed fresh air and then started several remote meetings on site,” he said, indicating that he spends a lot of time in video conferences and telephone group chats.
Different to some other Latvian politicians who reportedly find it hard to get used to working from home, Kariņš seemed not to have any troubles adjusting and staying focused for the duration of his self-isolation. “I somehow do not feel these difficulties at the moment, because I am all by myself and I do not have anyone that would keep me busy differently. You have to simply get used to it!”, he replied to a question about how he keeps self-discipline.
Locked-off from his family because of the self-isolation, Kariņš had little contact with his wife and children, and thus mainly concentrated on work. Due to the numerous online meetings that sometimes last for several hours, he even worked more than usual and was "quite surprisingly productive". "I did not really expect this," said Kariņš. However, he figured out that he is now saving time that was previously spent for getting from one place to another for physical meetings.
Upholding the etiquette
Despite working from home, Kariņš keeps up appearances. The U.S.-born former member of the European Parliament can be seen dressed only formally on the screen, wearing mostly a dark suit and tie. "I am dressing myself this way for many years, and if I am not dressed like this, it seems to me, I would feel a bit uncomfortable," he replied when asked if he was not at least below the waistline sitting in comfier clothes in front of the computer. "I am always in uniform", he said with a smile and without showing any sign that cabin fever have might been
Unlike some of his ministers and many others who were setting up their home offices in living rooms, studies or kitchens and appeared in front of bookshelves, picture or photographs, Karins used to sit in a bare room with white walls. The main feature of the scene behind him is a low sideboard with the red-white-red Latvian flag and the flag of the Prime Minister of Latvia on it. No family pictures, no flowers, no memorabilia. Nothing. Business as usual.
The same can be said about government meetings that according to Kariņš went smoothly. “I am personally surprised how easy it is for the government to work remotely and hold cabinet meetings. I thought it was going to be very difficult, but this software that we are all using is actually very convenient,” explained. “On the screen I see all government members at the same time, and there you can also make yourself heard by voice, or in case there is a video connection, also by hand or by using chat."
Kariņš’ assessment was seconded by Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs who on Twitter described the virtual cabinet meetings as "good and effective". Due to the positive experiences, the Latvian government now knows it can regularly use technology to keep in touch. "In the future it will not be on a day-to-day basis that cabinet meetings are held remotely," Kariņš said. Not all work could be done this way after all. "But I think that we will use it often".
In the wake of the pandemic, also the European Union has switched to video- conferencing for key meetings. "There were no big differences", Kariņš said of his impressions of the first remotely-held summit of EU leaders. What he felt short of were only the personal encounters and discussions with his European counterparts during breaks and on the sidelines in Brussels. "This informal part is missing, otherwise you can work this way", the Latvian Prime Minister stated.
Government still goes virtual
Despite initial doubts, the shuttering of the Valdības māja – as the building that houses the cabinet of ministers is called in Latvian – has had little impact on the work of Kariņš’ five-party government that arguably faced its biggest challenge to date since taking on office in January 2019.
While being in self-imposed isolation, the government announced stricter limits on public life and stepped up restrictions to contain the virus, winning plaudits for its matter-of-fact approach. For public health purposes the government has continued to work remotely even after Kariņš’ two weeks of home quarantine ended. The Latvian leader now regularly gives updates on the government response to the virus in virtual press conferences – to reassure viewers his cabinet is doing everything it can to see the nation through a testing time. In direct pleas to the public, he over and over urges citizens to stay at home when possible and to stick to social distancing
guidelines and hygienic recommendations.
Otherwise the country will not be able to successfully fight off the virus, Kariņš’ warns. When managing the crisis, Kariņš is strictly adhering to the epidemiological and medical advices by experts. He does neither trust nor believe in any urban myths and popular claims about the coronavirus. "My folk remedy is sleeping in the night", he replied when asked whether he was consuming garlic, lemon, ginger or similar herbal teas that are said to protect against the virus. "I try to sleep seven to eight hours. If I can, I sleep". Being in self-isolation should have been a rare chance to safeguard this sleeping routine – and to meet the crisis well-rested.
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