Slovenia was the first EU state to impose restrictive measures against the pandemic nationwide. At the same time, a new government took power.
On March 12, 2020, Slovenia was the first EU state to begin imposing nationwide, severely restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Precisely a week after the first positive test in the country, Slovenia had 131 registered cases of Covid-19. On the following day, a new government, headed by Prime Minister Janez Janša, a right-wing veteran of Slovenian politics, officially began its new mandate. For a significant number of Slovenians, this circumstance added to the unease experienced at the advent of the COVID-19 epidemic.
On 14 May, after two months of lockdown and additional measures aimed at preventing the spread of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, Slovenia became the first EU state to officially declare the end of the epidemic on its territory, having documented a progressive fall in the numbers of newly confirmed infections for two weeks. Since February 24, over 71,200 tests for the virus have been conducted around the country with just over two million inhabitants and a border with Italy, one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. 1,468 Covid-19 infections, including 107 fatalities, have been registered in Slovenia by May 23, 2020.
Discussions abound about the potentially excessive restrictiveness of the government’s measures intended to prevent the spread of the disease, pointing out that the current percentage of the population that has already been exposed to the virus is low: according to the Slovenian National study on the spread of COVID-19, it is only 2,5-4,4%.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Janša’s announcement of the end of the epidemic insisted that the country currently boasts “the best epidemiological picture” in Europe. The Prime Minister stipulated that progressive de-confinement measures, which have been in place since April 18, will continue (e.g. the majority of economic activities were re-launched on May 18, kindergartens and schools are also to partly open up, bars and restaurants are to resume indoor service), alongside recommendations for careful conduct in public places and vigilant monitoring of the presence of the virus in the country. Slovenia has partly re-opened its border with Croatia last week, while negotiations with its other neighbours, i.e. Italy, Austria, and Hungary are ongoing.
Protests and the New Government
Despite these seemingly promising developments, a glance at the socio-political and economic climate in Slovenia reveals a much more complex and less rosy picture. Evidently, factors such as the dire economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, ongoing debates about current strategies and practices in healthcare, and discussions about the fine line between safety and repressive measures are a global concern. In Slovenia, these are also entangled in an ongoing discussion on the past, present, and future of the state’s political and business culture, of welfare and human rights policies, and of research and development priorities. Since the beginning of progressive deconfinement measures in late April, many of these discussions have been taken to the streets in a series of anti-governmental Friday-afternoon protests on bicycles.
Despite the grey skies and the officially proclaimed end to the epidemic of May 14, the following day was marked by the fourth “protest-Friday” in a row. In Ljubljana, several thousand protesters equipped with posters and banners cycled around the city centre, flooding the Republic Square that faces the building of the Slovenian parliament. The diverse causes championed by the socially and generationally diverse palette of protesters ranged from expressions of discontent with the current government to direct accusations of corruption and of its attacks on the media, and calls against restrictions of various rights and civil liberties under the pretence of crisis management. Concerns were raised that the current government is using the coronavirus-crisis to pass ethically questionable clauses, preventing, for example, NGO-consultations about construction projects, and therefore jeopardizing the sustainability of the state’s construction industry. Many culminated in appeals for the resignation of the ruling government, and some called for the State President Borut Pahor to step down, too. However, PM Janez Janša’s name appeared to have been the most popular target.
Despite the government’s attempts to explain the protests as outrage at the government’s strict imposition of various restrictions aimed to curb the spread of the virus, the protesters’ banners, posters and statements indicate that the discontent was not caused by restrictions of movement, social distancing or self-isolation. Various public surveys reveal that the vast majority of Slovenians consider this strategy of “flattening the curve” to be appropriate. Rather, appeals for political change echo a conundrum of frustrations over other aspects of the government’s current crisis-management strategies, such as the primacy of hasty political decision-making based on limited medical insights and business deals of questionable transparency.
It should be noted that Janša’s last mandate as Prime Minister in 2012–13 was ended following a series of nation-wide protests that lasted from November 2012 to March 2013. Partly resonating with the current, 2020 wave of protests, those in 2012–13 voiced disapproval of the Janša government’s management of the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis, of its right-wing rhetoric hostile to minorities, and a series of corruption affairs, reaching from debatable employment practices to outrageous business deals. Shortly after the fall of his government in 2013, the current Slovenian Prime Minister was found guilty in the so-called “Patria affair”. This affair erupted after corruption had been detected in proceedings related to the 2006 purchase of Finnish Patria armoured personnel carriers for the Slovenian Army, Janša spent a short prison term before the court verdict issued by the Ljubljana District Court and supported by the Higher Court was repealed by the Constitutional Court in April 2015.
Apart from a short period in 2013, immediately after the end of his mandate as head of government, Janša never retired from Slovenian politics, serving as Member of Parliament despite the aforementioned charges and prison sentence. Public support for his conservative Slovenian democratic party (SDS) has consistently remained strong over the past fifteen years; the party had triumphed in the last parliamentary elections in 2018, but could not secure enough support to form a government. This resulted in the eventual formation of the first ever centre-left minority government under the Marjan Šarec. Šarec’s government was in power for just sixteen months until his resignation in late January 2020, after a series of disputes with his coalition partners and just after the resignation of his Minister of Finances, Andrej Bertoncelj.
Shutdown, Institutional Changes, and State Economic Aid
Effectively, Slovenia’s acknowledgement of the coronavirus epidemic on March 12 coincided not only with the beginning of Janša’s new term as Prime Minister, but also with a general fear regarding the country’s capacities to cope with the health crisis.
Since late February, the rapid deterioration of the epidemiological situation in northern Italy, which shares a border with Slovenia, had contributed to an increasing sense of uneasiness in Slovenia. Concerns and warnings about a possible unfavourable prognosis were articulated by the leading national and commercial media with reference to experts, such as the former director of the National Institute for Public Health, epidemiologist Nina Pirnat, before the first case of the disease was registered in Slovenia on March 4, 2020. Nevertheless, in line with trends in neighbouring countries, the only measures taken by the state before the declaration of an epidemic were a ban on visiting retirement homes (March 6), the establishment of a network of points where one could get tested for the virus (March 8) and increased control on the Italian border (March 10).
Janša’s government responded to the epidemic with the establishment of a Crisis Headquarters – the necessity of which was motivated by the Prime Minister’s publicly expressed concern about the seriousness of the situation, and his criticism of the (in)activity of the previous government. “In Slovenia we were late to react,” Janša stated on March 19. “We were watching the events unfold in northern Italy and we didn’t believe that the virus could get here faster than to Rome or Sicily. Even during the school holidays, we failed to provide any of the necessary advice to our citizens. We heard that we had a national plan for an epidemic, but they didn’t tell us that it was a plan for a flu epidemic. We heard that we have enough protective equipment but in reality, the warehouses were practically empty in relation to the demand. There were no lists of national-level requirements, no joint appropriations plans, not even a uniform opinion among the professionals. Chaos was waiting for us.”
Slovenia did not declare a state of emergency. Nevertheless, due to decrees hastily issued by the new authorities, Slovenia had effectively shut down most of its services by March 20; recommended self-isolation was followed by the cancellation of all kinds of public transport and the closure of restaurants (except for delivery); education and culture were moved online, and a ban on public gatherings for groups of all sizes took effect. In parallel to these measures, the new government was quick to secure its influence by assuring its preferred candidates to take control of vital public institutions, such as the police, the army, the anti-corruption committee, and the special information service. Plans to give the military limited police powers on the Slovenian borders “to help the police” were another item on the agenda.
Epidemiologist Nina Pirnat, the director of the National institute for public health (NIJZ), the key state organ for monitoring and managing the epidemic, was also discharged for allegedly inadequate responses at the advent of the crisis. Pirnat was replaced by Janša’s party colleague, infectiologist Bojana Beović, PhD, while the role of the NIJZ became increasingly subordinated to the Ministry of Health.
These key March events – followed by the dissolution of the Crisis Headquarters on March 24 – signalled an unsettling characteristic of Slovenia’s crisis management strategy as the government demonstrated a concerted attempts to retain control over the information available on the epidemiological situation in the country, and over its public availability and interpretations. Fortunately, upon Luka Renko’s initiative, an interdisciplinary group of scientists has, since late March, actively countered attempts to hijack COVID-19-related news for various political agendas by launching and diligently updating a comprehensive, multidimensional Covid-19 Tracker website. The website, open to volunteer-input and upheld by a daily average of 20-45 people, assembles and critically synthesizes information on the epidemic from various national and international sources.
The COVID-19 Tracker was one of the responses to the government’s decree to restrict the official authority to report on the coronavirus situation in Slovenia to government officials. Jelko Kacin was appointed to serve as the official spokesperson – a role that he had already played in Slovenia’s short independence war in 1991. The analogy between war and the coronavirus crisis had since been underscored repeatedly by the PM.
After the first week of crisis management measures and the aforementioned personnel changes in the public sector, the government passed a bundle of economic measures worth 3 billion EUR, intended to curb the detrimental immediate socio-economic effects of the corona epidemic. This package is intended to preserve employment contracts and prevent corona-induced lay-offs, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises. It includes state-coverage of employers’ social contributions, aid to cover the salaries of those workers that the crisis has temporarily put out of work, universal basic income for various groups of the self-employed, and single instalments of financial aid to pensioners and students.
The package was immediately criticized as discriminatory toward precarious workers who have no way to access benefits, and to be insensitive toward the specificities of the cultural sector and of industries such as tourism, where revenues vary greatly from month to month (or season to season). Amended on April 28, after appeals by the opposition, NGOs, and trade unions, it was expanded to include a greater array of stakeholders and to take into account critiques regarding the rigidity of eligibility conditions for aid. It should be noted that it remains unhelpful to the most precarious groups of labourers, and that there is currently no viable strategy in place to help the cultural sector. Moreover, the recently announced end of the epidemic means that this sort of aid to the economy will be discontinued as of June 1.
Along with amendments to this first corona-package, a second set of measures was approved by parliament on April 28. This package, worth 2.8 billion EUR, was conceived as an injection that will ensure the liquidity of the economy over the coming months by offering enterprises affordable loans. A third set of measures, the so-called “Covid-19-Exit-Strategy”, particularly concerned with revitalizing the tourism and restaurant industries, is currently under preparation.
Hazards: Spring, Whistle-blowers and Care Homes
The first debates on the economic impact of the Covid-19 epidemic and the government’s efforts to minimize it in late March were followed by an intensification of the measures intended to prevent citizens from leaving their homes. Widely unpopular and constitutionally controversial restrictions on movement outside the municipality of one’s permanent residence were announced on March 30, allegedly after car-owners flooded the country’s coastline and mountains the weekend before, to enjoy the weather. Regular disinfection of apartment buildings, another technically and economically controversial measure, was announced a day later, followed soon by extra restrictions regarding visiting grocery stores. Those were declared accessible to “high-risk” groups, such as the elderly, only for the limited time of two hours daily, between 8 and 10 a.m. Obligatory week-long quarantine for returnees from abroad followed on April 12, marking the last of the government’s attempts to “flatten the curve”. As the number of newly confirmed cases continued to drop (from an average of 36 new cases per day in the first month of the epidemic, to an average of 12 new cases per day April 12–April 30), certain economic activities were slowly authorized again, as well as certain freedoms, such as visiting one’s own property outside one’s residential municipality.
On April 21, the state launched a special research initiative, intended to accelerate identification of new cases of COVID-19 infections; 3,000 randomly selected persons were invited to undergo a COVID-19 test. The initiative has not significantly contributed to a rise in infection rates, which has amounted to an average of 4.6 new infections per day between April 21 and May 15, according to statistics available on the COVID-19 Tracker. While these numbers appear reassuring, concerns about the overall crisis-management trends do not subside.
Importantly, the initial relaxation of some restrictions was followed by increased attention to the logistics of the government’s COVID-19 containment and treatment strategy. On April 23, details on a series of economically and ethically questionable deals were discussed on national television. Ivan Gale, a whistle-blower from the Commodities Reserves Agency in charge of ordering personal protective equipment, took the limelight, revealing a set of complex machinations performed at various levels of the government’s public procurement procedures been put in place to purchase much needed respirators and ventilators. Gale immediately faced political pressure and became one of the key icons of the ongoing cyclist-protests.
Concurrently, a different ethical concern emerges as testimonies from retirement home employees around the country multiply, painting a worrisome picture. Slovenian nursing homes are the site of over 80% of the country’s coronavirus-related fatalities, the rate being significantly higher than in other EU countries. In attempts to contain the virus, Slovenian care homes have, over the past two months, effectively been transformed into emergency clinics, as the vast majority of the infected elderly residents would not get admitted to hospitals. The atmosphere in such coronavirus-oases, under-equipped in comparison to hospitals, was particularly disheartening as the vulnerability of this high-risk population of nursing home residents was further aggravated due to restrictions with regard to visiting the facilities, which have only partly been lifted in late April.
Meanwhile, discussions abound regarding the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 infections to hit Slovenia in the Autumn. Should we take the current crisis as an instructive case study, it appears clear that “exit strategies” and future crisis-management plans should address not only economic challenges, but also problems aggravated by structural social inequalities and deeply rooted political antagonisms in Slovenia.