Estonia’s Digital State Tops Countries with Remarkable Pandemic Preparedness

Written by: Rachel Berman

With the unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries were alarmingly unprepared to switch most activities to a digital platform. However, for countries like Estonia, this transition proved simple since most of their government services were online before the pandemic struck. Estonia’s digital infrastructure was crucial in a time when limiting in-person interactions was key. With services such as i-voting, e-school, and e-health records, it is evident why Estonia has been named “the most advanced digital society in the world.” 

As a smaller country trying to reinvent itself after being under Soviet control, Estonia had both the opportunity and challenge of making a name for itself in the global community. Previously, “less than half [of Estonia’s] population had a telephone line,” so it is incredible to see how far the country has come. Estonia’s journey to become a digital powerhouse started after progressive leaders decided to simplify citizens’ lives post-occupation through technological means. The country’s efforts since 1991 have been nothing short of extraordinary. From the beginning, the government has emphasized the importance of digital provisions to ensure security on a national and international level. In 1993, the government created the Riigi Infosüsteemide Osakond (RISO) under the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications to approve all “ministries’ and agencies’ IT development plans” in order to trace all IT expenditures. Since then, Estonia has continuously strengthened security protocols to ensure they are not vulnerable to cyber threats. The government established KSI Blockchain to “make sure networks, systems and data are free of compromise, all while retaining 100% data privacy.” Because of their longstanding commitment to cybersecurity, Estonia was recognized as a leader in this area with their appointment to the UN Security Council. In June 2021, they even held “an open meeting of the UN Security Council on cybersecurity for the first time in history.”

However, while there are many benefits to an e-government, especially in relation to COVID-19, Estonia has previously experienced difficulties as well. The country has been targeted by cybersecurity threats in the past, most notably in the ID card crisis of 2017. In fall of 2017, Czech researchers found a security risk affecting all ID cards issued after October 16th, 2014, equating to roughly 800,000 cards total. Because these cards allow citizens to access health records, voting services, and other services critical for everyday life, this security threat posed a huge risk and needed to be dealt with urgently. Estonia’s government immediately “[suspended] the certificates of Estonian ID cards vulnerable to a detected security risk” which showed Estonia’s electronic infrastructure was capable of a rapid response in the face of a serious security issue. Former President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid recognized the crisis could have been handled better, but showed that Estonia was committed to defending the safety of its citizens. She gave the government’s response a B+ grade overall.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Estonia’s digital infrastructure prospered when put to the test. Kersti Kaljulaid said that “in difficult times we have two options: remain seated when the ground is burning or start searching for solutions. [Estonia] chose the last option!” The former President made it clear that Estonia was willing to find solutions “to minimize coronavirus’ socio-economic impact on [Estonian people’s] lives.” This commitment was honored in multiple ways, especially in the health care sector. 

Within weeks, Estonian IT companies were helping the government produce functional e-health services, further building the public-private sector partnership Estonia cultivates. These services include but are not limited to digitized health records, prescription needs, and electronic pre-filled medical records immediately sent to emergency health professionals to increase efficiency with e-ambulance. With increased collaboration between the private and public sectors, the following programs resulted:

  1. Koroonatest – A self-assessed coronavirus questionnaire to detect possible infection created by the Ministry of Social Affairs. 
  2. Koroonakaart – A map pulling information from Estonian Health Board, Estonian Land Board, and demographic data from Statistics Estonia to provide citizens with timely information regarding COVID-19 incidence in Estonia.  
  3. Viveo Health Telemedicine – Viveo Health’s “app allowed patients to quickly connect with health care professionals to get a diagnosis, a specialist’s referral, or e-prescription via a video call.” This allowed social distancing measures to remain intact while preserving critical access to healthcare 

The services did not end there.  Estonia’s education system was prepared to transition to a virtual format because it had the necessary digital infrastructure in place. 100% of schools use e-school solutions, which came in handy even before the pandemic. Many Estonian schools “were routinely using digital study materials” and there were policies in place to ensure “that every student receives the necessary knowledge and skills to access modern digital infrastructure for future use.” Students were able to access their teacher’s resources in one organized medium using e-Schoolbag, an online bookbag with all of the materials a child would use at school, but in a virtual format. This technology is marketed as a way to provide parents support to teach their kids at home and gives teachers the ability to organize their materials in a way that best helps their students. Additional resources provided during the pandemic included:

  1. Free e-Learning Tools: Education Nation provided free e-learning programs, such as teaching coding to underrepresented populations and fun ways to learn languages, as a result of schools being closed for in-person instruction. 
  2. Computer and Tablet Accessibility: Many Estonian schools, in collaboration with Estonian companies, provided their students with computers and tablets if they did not have access to technology at home. The country did not want their students to fall behind in a virtual environment. 

If a smaller country like Estonia can be a digital state, why can’t the U.S.? The U.S. could build a similar infrastructure system, but this would not be an easy process.There is no doubt that mis- and dis-information campaigns would start in response to a change in voting in particular. For instance, the 2016 election and the fears of foreign interference with voter fraud and dis-information campaigns contribute to fears over allowing digital voting systems. The U.S. has been the target of numerous malware attacks with “malicious actors regularly [probing] the professional and personal email and social-media accounts of elected officials and their staff.” 

The vast population size difference between the two countries could also inhibit the US’s ability to become a digital state . Because Estonia only has 1.3 million citizens, compared to 329.5 million citizens in the U.S., it is much easier to provide digital services to everyone in Estonia. It would take significantly more political, financial, and social resources to build up the necessary infrastructure in the U.S.. With this population difference, the U.S. may not be able to achieve such quality education virtually, for example. Providing students with the technological access necessary would be significantly harder to achieve in the U.S. This is remarkably apparent in the different levels of access to broadband services between different socioeconomic groups in the U.S. In a 2019 study by the Wall Street Journal, it was found that low and high income households both pay roughly $66 per month on stand-alone internet. However, lower income households experience speeds that are 40% slower than those in high income households. With vast disparities in access to broadband and other internet services in the U.S., it would pose a greater challenge to achieve a fully-functioning digital infrastructure.

There are many lessons learned from Estonia’s digital state and there is no question that the country leads on a global scale when it comes to building a functional digital government. These technological advancements allowed Estonia to lead the world in making their digital transition during the pandemic efficiently and timely.