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Saturday 04.04.2020 | Name days: Valda, Herta, Ārvalda, Ārvalds

Lithuania sees upsides to the coronavirus scourge too!

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Lithuania, COVID-19, coronavirus, stay home, stay safe, wash your hands, mind the gap, disinfect, pandemic

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

It goes without words – Lithuania, as the rest of the world, has been hit hard by the spreading coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic, with the aftermaths of the crisis being likened to 2008-2010 economic crunch. The jobless rate soared 30 per cent during quarantine, year-on-year, over 60 thousand Lithuanians took sick leave. With the dire forecasts that the coronavirus patient toll in the country will peak to nearly 7 thousand cases by May 1, local economy pundits have dramatically worsened this week prognosis for GDP contraction this year.

A silver lining

When things are seemingly getting just worse, to speak of upsides to coronavirus sounds blasphemous, yet they are! Well, here are some of the bright points in the gloomy COVID-19 picture.

First, Lithuania’s painstaking efforts to herd émigrés back home are panning out. Yes, thanks to COVID-19! Just this week alone 5 thousand Lithuanians crossed the borders, seeking refuge here from the disastrous turnout of the virus in Spain, Italy, France and UK. Some of them were tourists, who came back home from the holiday, however.

Surreal scenes of peaceful times

The problem, however, is that those who make it back– like many others who are ordered to self-isolate or quarantine themselves – tend to breach stringent quarantine and leave their home. Tackling the situation, the Health Ministry has decided this week to forcefully quarantine all Lithuanians arriving from abroad, placing them in two or, at best, three-star hotels guarded by police.  But with as many as 5 or 7 other people accommodated in the same room, disobedience and violence ensued as a result. That a young mother with a sobbing toddler on her hands could not get any attention from the staff for hours – she claimed her multiple requests were snubbed – hit the headlines of many media outlets. As a result, Aurelijus Veryga, the Health minister and chairman of the State Emergency Situation Commission until Tuesday, gave in to pressure and backed away from the order, allowing all to self-isolate and quarantine at home.  Now the Health Ministry mulls asking the major communications firms and the Interior Ministry to cooperate on the virus, so the whereabouts of persons under quarantine are tracked through the GDP system on mobile phones, but some human rights watchdogs warn against doing so.

Cleaner air

With cars off the streets, the air, needless to say, has gotten much cleaner. This is perhaps the most evident upside to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the world and in Lithuania, too. «Air pollution has decreased 30 per cent following the introduction of quarantine. Even under unfavourable meteorological conditions the concentration of contaminants in air was low or very low. However, with a wave of colder temperatures setting in earlier this week and more households resorting to more intense heating, the pollution levels went up again,»  Vilma Bimbaitė, head of Air Quality Assessment Department of the Environment Protection Agency (AAA) at the Environment Ministry, was quoted by Lithuanian media.

 Unseen camaraderie

With the virus mowing down businesses, those standing firmly and those revving up production to satisfy the enormous demand for popular goods nowadays, come together, manifesting envious camaraderie.

As of Thursday afternoon, over one million euros has been donated by various Lithuanian business organizations to a new fund, established to grapple with the virus’ economic and social consequences. For SEB Bank Lithuania, the 100 thousand euros it donated is perhaps a cinch, but former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who is chairwoman of the fund, says thousands of ordinary Lithuanians have already transferred what they afforded to the fund.

Modest heroes of coronavirus

The buds of camaraderie, patriotism and sacrifice are flourishing throughout Lithuania, and the noble compatriots shun any media attention.

«Personally, I am taking care of three elderly families – I deliver food for them. So do the other women who belong to our «Lions» club, which is part of the international «Lions» chain known for its generosity and charity. Palanga’s «Lions» club has agreed with local schools that it will deliver free food parcels to needy children in the town,»  Birutė Simutienė, president of «Lions»  club in the Lithuanian resort of Palanga, told BNN. With the huge demand for protective medical masks and gowns, some Palanga women switched from neat embroidering to sewing of protective face masks.

«I understand that all we need to help combat the coronavirus is to stay at home, but I just cannot sit on the couch idling. My hobby is paper cutting – I have plenty of beautiful paper works – but in the crisis, availability of face masks is crucial, so I will be sewing them as long as needed,»  Irena Gačionienė, a mask sewer, told BNN.

New opportunities for businesses

Faced with the public health malady, some businesses ratcheted up efforts to come up with new, remotely-controlled technologies to jostle the virus. So «Rubedo sistemos», known for developing mission-critical control software for many demanding industries, like healthcare and communications, announced this week it is expediently creating a first-ever robot disinfector able to sanitize the surroundings remotely.

«We churned up the idea with the outbreak of coronavirus in China. So we got in touch with an American company producing disinfectant equipment and it got interested in our idea right away. The first prototype of the robot will soon commence operations in a hospital in Honk Kong,»  Paulius Rakauskas, Business Development Manager of «Rubedo sistemos», told BNN.

That COVID-19 provides lucrative opportunities for cutting-edge companies believes Gintas Kimtys, interim director of the Agency of Science, Innovations and Technologies at the Economy Ministry.

«Indeed, many businesses will see a downfall if unassisted through the hard times.  But I am sure we will see the opposite too – there will be startups that will flourish having responded to the market’s demands during the coronavirus outbreak,» said.

Creativity is blooming in other fields, too.  For example, Juozas Statkevičius, an internationally known couture designer, is offering fashionable yet medically approved face masks to protect all from the virus. «It is dictating not only our life conditions now, but the market demand too, so our atelier responded to it accordingly,»  the Lithuanian celebrity said.

Different assessments

Despite the deteriorating situation in the economy, Vitas Vasiliauskas, the central bank governor, says that Lithuanian banks have sufficient buffers to withstand an economic recession caused by the novel coronavirus. Under the central bank’s baseline scenario, the economy may contract by 11.4 per cent this year.  «There is no bank liquidity problem across the system. Deposits are the main source of liquidity, and the (sector’s) reliance on foreign banks that control the major banks has decreased significantly,» he said at an online press conference on Thursday.

The majority of Lithuanian economists believe that Lithuania’s economy will contract less this year because of the coronavirus crisis than it did during the 2009 crisis when the country’s GDP slumped 15 per cent. Žygimantas Mauricas, chief economist at Luminor bank, says the most likely scenario is that the GDP drop will not exceed 6 per cent this year, and the slump might be around 12 per cent in the worst-case scenario. Tadas Povilauskas, chief economist at SEB bank, believes the GDP’s annual slump in April will amount to 20 per cent. Under the optimistic scenario, if restrictions are lifted by the end of April, the economy would contract at least 3.2 per cent this year. But the most likely scenario is that the economy will shrink 6 per cent, he says.

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