Three Years with COVID-19: Which Way Forward?
The authors have studied the analyses published so far in international research literature as well as the Estonian research data to present the key conclusions on the success achieved in responding to the three-year long COVID-19 pandemic as well as the possible lessons to be learned in preparation of potential future pandemics.
Global cooperation in scientific research, which has resulted in relatively efficient vaccines being developed with unprecedented speed, has proven successful during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 posed a medical challenge only during the first year, until the vaccines were fully developed. During the second and third year of the pandemic, the key focus shifted to social distrust, opposition to masks and vaccines, and the conflict between the interests of the individual and the society. Countries with higher levels of prosociality fared better during the pandemic. Prosocial behaviour must be systematically developed in the Estonian society in anticipation of future crises; however, this cannot be achieved by isolated campaigns but requires consistent daily dialogue with citizens and offering support to vulnerable groups.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly affected the state of public health in Estonia. Our life expectancy fell in 2020, and even more so in 2021 (21.5 months). The steady decrease in life expectancy during the second year of the pandemic can be explained by one of the lowest vaccination rates among the European nations (64%), particularly in the older age group (78%). By October 2022, 92% of Estonian adults have developed antibodies for the coronavirus. The high rate of antibodies among the Estonian population permits the assumption that most people would be protected by a certain degree of immunity should new virus strains emerge, which should keep the pressure on the Estonian hospital system within its current capabilities. However, COVID-19 affects the general state of public health in a negative way because severe symptoms (as shown by hospitalisation) cause new afflictions or aggravate the existing chronic illnesses in around 40.3% of the patients. This in turn will increase the need to treat these conditions or offer care services, which is something we need to prepare for. In addition, COVID-19 causes long-term health problems to around 22% of Estonian adults, regardless of the severity of their coronavirus symptoms. Post-COVID-19 health care would benefit from a broader exchange of experiences between GPs, school physicians, and occupational health doctors. Vaccination of risk groups against SARS-CoV-2 should be included in the national immunisation plan. Sequencing of the coronavirus and research into the changes to the immune response must be continued.
Any plans for public health and communication measures should recognise that there is a noticeable trend towards increased social opposition to pandemic control measures, especially concerning vaccines.