As many countries are scrambling for medical supplies to cope with Covid-19, Finland remains assured with ample masking stock.

The most abundant stockpile in Europe has been built by Finland for many years, including not only medical supplies but also oil, cereals, implements and materials for making ammunition. Neighboring Nordic countries including Norway, Sweden and Denmark also accumulated large reserves of medical, military, fuel, and food equipment during the Cold War. But after that, most gave up.


Health workers take samples for testing in Espoo, Finland on 1/4 Photo: AFP

When attacked by Covid-19, the Finnish government opened its reserves for the first time since World War II. "Finland is the country with the highest defensive spirit in Northern Europe, they are always ready to deal with a great disaster or World War III," said Magnus Hakenstad, a scholar at the Norwegian Defense Research Institute.

Although Finland consistently ranks high on the list of the happiest countries in the world, its geographical location and history lesson have taught the nation of 5.5 million people to always prepare for the worst, Tomi Lounema, executive director of the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency, said. He mentioned that Finland was always wary of neighboring Russia and had been at war with the Soviet Union in 1939.

Much of Finland's commercial activity passes through the Baltic Sea. This is considered a weak point because unlike Sweden, which borders the North Sea in the west, Finland depends entirely on security and maritime traffic conditions in the Baltic Sea. "If a crisis occurs, the supply chain may be disrupted," Lounema said.

Two weeks ago, when the number of nCoV infections in Finland began to increase rapidly, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs asked to distribute reserve masks to hospitals across the country. Finland has so far recorded more than 1,900 cases and nearly 30 deaths. "Facemasks are old, but they still work," Lounema said.

Finland does not disclose the number of masks and other supplies in its strategic stockpile as well as where they are stored. "All warehouse details are confidential," Lounema added. However, officials confirmed that stockpiles are kept in a nationwide network of facilities built since the 1950s.

With this measure, Finland has an advantage over many other countries when dealing with pandemics. Other countries such as the United States are faced with a shortage of masks, ventilators and protective gear, forcing them to compete fiercely, even with allies, to win shipments of medical supplies.

French officials said they were "cut off" on a batch of masks from China by paying a higher price right on the runway, as cargo planes were about to take off. Germany said the Trump administration was trying to persuade a local company developing the nCoV vaccine to shift research to the US, to get them vaccinated first when the vaccine was completed.

The European Commission announced on March 19 that it was building the first medical equipment stockpile to "assist EU countries in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic". Some EU countries have passed a new law banning the export of essential materials.

Finland's careful preparation exposes the holes of other Nordic countries. In Sweden, which is considered "alone" because it did not impose strong anti-Covid-19 measures, its inventory dwindled in the past three decades after the end of the Cold War, according to Fredrik Bynander. , director of the Center for Social Security at the Swedish National Defense University.

"We think that 'eternal peace' has arrived and we no longer need stockpiles," he said, adding that the government has sold these reserve items.

In 1995, Sweden joined the European Union. Since then, the Swedish health system has relied on immediate supply. Swedish hospitals only stockpile enough supplies for two or three days, according to Anders Melander, an analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

"We think that with the free market, we will always be able to buy what we need," Melander said.

The privatization of the pharmaceutical industry in 2009 also deepened Sweden's weakness. Prior to this landmark, government pharmacies maintained supply to the country in times of crisis. No agency was responsible for subsequent national reserves.

"This is not really a good plan," Melander said. "It's like losing a cow to take care of the barn. The free market is only free when everything is fine."

Swedish Radio SVT Nyheter reported on April 5 that hospitals were out of Propofol anesthetics, drugs used in surgery and in some cases used to treat Covid-19 patients who had to use ventilators.

Although Sweden neglected the country's stockpiles, they encouraged people to increase their personal reserves. Two years ago, they sent flyers to people's mailboxes entitled "If a crisis and war breaks out," calling on the public to stock up on food, water, warm clothes, candles, hand sanitizer water and medicine.

Norway was better prepared before the national crisis, according to Leif Inge Magnussen, associate professor at Southeastern University of Norway. But a risk analysis last year by the Norwegian Civil Protection Directorate concluded that pandemics and drug shortages were a major concern.

Audun Haga, director of the Norwegian Pharmaceutical Agency, said the country could run out of essential medicines within a few weeks, as most of its imports are from China, which is just starting to reopen the factory. "We have become very dependent on other countries and immediate supply chains," Magnussen said.

Finland, meanwhile, is in a proactive position because it has on hand stockpiles. "The precautionary spirit has taken on Finnish blood," Lounema said.