If it were normal times, this interview would probably be focused more on Finland’s education system and what Nepal could draw from it. I long wanted to discuss it with the Finnish ambassador to Nepal, for Finland is the envy of the world when it comes to education. As a matter of fact, Finland’s comprehensive school system stood at the top of Europe’s rankings for many years. So much so that the UK’s Labor Party committed to follow Finland’s education system in 2019. But these are the Covid times and Finland was among the European countries to send medical supplies to Nepal while we were at the peak of the pandemic. So I approached Finnish Ambassador to Nepal Pertti Anttinen with questions touching on issues from pandemic to diplomacy during the pandemic to education to Nepal-Finland cooperation.
To start with, how did you communicate the situation of Nepal to Finland while Nepal was suffering from the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 in May?
The Covid-19 pandemic has been really devastating globally. It has affected all the countries, including my home country Finland. It came as a surprise in 2020. When it started nobody knew what it was and how to respond to it.
When the first wave really started in Nepal in October and November 2020, it was quite tough but Nepal’s health care system was largely able to contain the situation and no international assistance was requested. But we were very much concerned about the aggravating situation in Nepal. The impact on the education sector was particularly hard and therefore Finland decided to make an extra contribution of 2.5 million Euros for school sector support to address Covid related challenges. In April and May this year, the cases started to go up again and stress the health care system was facing increased rapidly. It was a critical time for Nepal and the government of Nepal decided to request for assistance from the international partners. I immediately contacted our headquarters in Helsinki explaining the rapidly aggravating situation here. At that time India was in the headlines in Finland and Europe. We had to make the effort to make the situation of Nepal known to the decision makers. And we were successful in communicating the message, together with other European Union colleagues. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly my home country could react and make the decision to mobilize help in May. The European Union Civil Protection Mechanism sprang into action. Help came from Finland and other Member States and the logistical support was provided by the EU.
Finland was able to send a full cargo plane of different kinds of supplies. It was a great moment to receive the cargo plane from Helsinki at the Kathmandu airport together with EU colleagues and hand it over to the Nepal government.
But what Nepal needed, and still needs, were not only protective equipment and medical supplies but also the vaccines. Vaccines are the global common goods and they should be available for all citizens and every citizen in the world should be vaccinated. Without vaccination, the world would not return to normalcy and without it we would all be in trouble. As we know, until now vaccines have been in short supply everywhere in the world including in Europe. The global vaccine production capacity was 5.5 billion doses in 2019 and now we need at least 11 billion doses for Covid pandemic only. This shows how big the challenge is and that is why the global COVAX program has been created with a large international support, including from Finland.
The EU has pledged to support COVAX with three billion Euros and has so far allowed to export half of the vaccines produced in the European countries to ensure that others also can have access to vaccination.
How difficult was it to work as a diplomat during the pandemic?
Nepal is Finland’s long-term partner country in development cooperation. We have had a successful development cooperation and partnership since the 1980s. After the embassy was established in Kathmandu in 1992, the relations between the two countries were further enhanced.
When Covid-19 pandemic hit Nepal in 2020 we were worried about the progress of the Finland assisted programs, such as a major EU co-financed WASH program in the Sudurpachim province. The big concern then was whether we could continue planned activities under the pandemic. Fortunately, after the first initial “shock”, we were able to go back to work with our partners and also to redirect part of funding to address the Covid-19 challenges.
Finland was able to send a full cargo plane of different kinds of supplies. It was a great moment to receive the cargo plane from Helsinki at the Kathmandu airport.
Covid has severely reduced possibilities for field trips and we have largely been confined to Kathmandu. There have been times when physical meetings have not been possible nor have there been receptions, dinners and social gatherings. To be cut out of the human contacts for a diplomat is a big setback. Furthermore, exchange of visits is part of the relations building between countries but due to Covid they have not been possible. For instance, a visit of our Minister for Development and Trade to Nepal was planned in April 2020 but it did not take place.
How did Finland respond to Covid crisis? Is there something Nepal could have learned from Finland or Finland could have learned from Nepal to contain the spread of the virus?
Every country has its own share of sufferings and hardships created by Covid-19. The scale of this pandemic has had no parallel from the near past but perhaps can be compared with the Spanish flu 100 years ago. Every country had to start to learn something and find ways to deal with it. We Finns are a little bit reserved by nature and keeping social distance comes somewhat naturally to us. We also tend to take government instructions seriously. So, when the government in Finland issued an order to keep social distance, to wear masks and introduced other restrictive measures, it was met with a broad public acceptance. Furthermore, the public health care system is strong and well established in Finland. So in Finland, the death toll is not very high, a little more than 1000 as the number of infected is around 130 000. The economic impact, however, of the pandemic has been huge as in the rest of Europe.
Nepal imposed lockdown very early in April, 2020 when it had only a few cases. I think that helped to delay the beginning of the first wave. The extra challenge for Nepal was to cope with the return of migrant workers and to provide proper contact tracing and quarantine measures. The pandemic has also shown that investments in basic health services are essential and adequate human resources and funds are needed. It has been fundamental to realize that Covid is a serious disease and with our own behavior we can make a difference.
Finland’s education system is the envy of many countries in the world. What makes it among the best and different from the education system of other countries?
Actually, it’s a long story. In Finland, the concept of the importance of education for all emerged towards the end of the 19th century. Our primary education system was starting then and it was clear to the country that all of its population have to be able to read and write. That was the main mission at that time. That was a modest start but a very important one. So it was recognized that every single child, irrespective of his/her economic background, should be able to go to school and the government should be able to provide them education. The concept that education is important was embedded in the Finish psyche quite early on. There was the motivation to use the nation’s capacity to its full for that matter. The other realization was that you cannot have good schools without good teachers. So the investment in teacher’s training and education was there quite from the very beginning. Across the country, teacher’s training centers were established as early as 1920s and 1930s. These centers produced motivated and trained teachers who were highly respected in the communities because of their profession. They were also paid enough to make the profession attractive. That was the second step. Then after the Second World War, Finland began to invest more in technical education system. The country was rapidly industrializing and it needed more technicians and engineers than ever before. So there was a big investment in that sector including in the universities. The need for more higher education was also realized and education was made free from primary level up to the university to make it affordable and accessible for all students. That was another big boost.
While making the decisions regarding reopening schools, one always has to keep in mind that the pandemic is not over yet.
So, in Finland, education is free. We don’t have private universities, colleges and schools (with a few exceptions). The quality of public institutions is so good that the need/demand for private ones is not there nor is there a need to create a parallel system of private education and public education. The key is quality teaching and giving motivation to the students to learn.
How did Finland manage education during the pandemic?
Just as Nepal is struggling to manage education during the Covid-19 pandemic, we were also struggling. We closed schools in Finland after the outbreak and they remained closed for several months. That was quite stressful for many students, though they learned through online means all the while. In Nepal, those pupils coming from well-off and better income families have been able to take classes from home and parents are supporting them. But there are many others who don’t get such support and who are not able to take classes online either. It is quite obvious that Covid-19 has created inequality in learning outcomes all over the world.
The qualified, committed, competent and motivated teachers are the cornerstones for successful schools and learning results.
In Finland, schools have invested in online learning methodologies. The students have their laptops or computers at home. Some schools provided such devices to the students. Efforts were made to ensure that online teaching and learning was provided adequate support, fit the purpose and needs. Even so, it was not the same as learning in the real physical classes and our educational goals have suffered a setback. Now schools have opened in Finland. The authorities there made a decision that the children cannot be kept out of schools for too long a time. Protective measures are still maintained. For example, if a student is found to be coughing and sneezing, he or she is immediately taken for a PCR test. In Nepal, local governments have started to allow schools to reopen classes, depending on the situation in the area. I think that this is now welcome after so many months. But while making the decisions regarding reopening schools, one always has to keep in mind that the pandemic is not over yet.
Finland has been supporting Nepal to enhance its education system. What key areas do you think need to be improved in Nepal?
The partnership between the government of Nepal and the international development partners to develop the education sector has been there for some time now. And this partnership will continue. I have visited a number of public schools in villages and urban areas. One of the issues from my experience is how trained and qualified the teachers are and how willing the schools are to adopt new concepts in teaching. The qualified, committed, competent and motivated teachers are the cornerstones for successful schools and learning results. Furthermore, the concepts such as education for all and inclusive education need to be translated into action in full. Access to quality education has to be guaranteed irrespective of children’s economic background, gender, etc. Quite often also the physical environment, such as WASH facilities, of schools need improvement. That’s why we have been supporting the efforts of the government of Nepal to improve education.
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