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Friday's papers: Avoiding the capital, more focus on immigrants, country buses

Finnish newspapers report some regional authorities are recommending locals to stay away from the Helsinki area.

Joensuun Sokoksen S-Marketiissa, Joensuu Sokos S-Market
Beer on sale at an S-Market in Joensuu. Many customers in shops have to remove masks these days to purchase tobacco and alcohol. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

Tampere's Aamulehti reports that residents of the Pirkanmaa region will probably be given a recommendation to avoid non-essential travel to Uusimaa, including the Helsinki Metropolitan Area.

The paper quotes Juhani Sand, the head of the Pirkanmaa regional pandemic coordination group, as saying that if the situation in the Uusimaa region continues to show an upswing in coronavirus infections, a travel recommendation will be issued.

Previously, residents of Pirkanmaa were recommended to avoid travel to the Vaasa region when the pandemic was in the community spreading stage, but that recommendation has subsequently been lifted.

On Thursday afternoon, Turku's Turun Sanomat reported that the pandemic coordination group for the Southwest Finland region had issued a recommendation to residents to avoid travel to Uusimaa.

In addition it recommended that any sports events drawing participants from the Uusimaa region should not be held. The recommendation applies to all sporting fixtures for individuals and teams of all ages, both indoors and outdoors.

However, the recommendation does not apply to national team activities or competition events at the Finnish Championships and Division 1 level. The recommendation will take effect on Saturday, 28 November and is valid until further notice.

Coronavirus and the immigrant community

A disproportionate level of current coronavirus infections in Helsinki and Vantaa are being confirmed among members of the immigrant community. Both cities have now announced that they are intensifying efforts to combat the spread of the virus among immigrants, writes the tabloid Iltalehti.

In recent days, the Mayor of Vantaa, Ritva Viljanen, has met with leaders of immigrant organisations and religious communities to discuss the situation.

According to Iltalehti, about 30–40 percent of infections in the Uusimaa region this autumn have been confirmed in residents born abroad. Residents with foreign backgrounds make up 14.2 percent of the region's population.

"In Helsinki, 31 percent of those infected are [native] speakers of languages other than Finnish or Swedish," Timo Lukkarinen, Director of Helsinki Health Centre Services, told the paper.

In 2019, 16.0 percent of Helsinki's population were of foreign background.

More than 20 percent of Vantaa residents speak a mother tongue other than Finnish, Swedish or Sámi, but precise figures on coronavirus infections among members of Vantaa's immigrant community have not been reported. According to mayor Viljanen, over-representation is due to the fact that many immigrants work in service sectors where the risk of infection is higher.

The cities of Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo, as well as the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District HUS, are taking steps to help curb infections in the immigrant population, including information services in multiple languages. In Helsinki alone, Iltalehti notes, instructions and recommendations are available in almost 20 languages.

Helsinki and Vantaa have also increased direct contacts with immigrant groups to provide information on the use of masks, safe distancing, hygiene, testing and quarantine.

Multilingual teams have gone to shopping malls and reached out to young people. Officials have also been meeting with religious leaders and leaders of immigrant organisations, in order to upgrade cooperation and, for example, better implement mobile testing services, according to Ilkka Haahtela, Director of Immigration and Employment Affairs in Helsinki.

"This is not just a question of communication, but also a question of attitude and action. No group can think that our culture doesn’t have to care about this," Haahtela told Iltalehti.

He stressed, though that every individual is responsible for their own actions.

"We cannot wash anyone's hands by force, or put on a mask on them, so anyone who does not follow safety instructions should take a look in the mirror," Haahtela said.

Dropping your mask

The Oulu-based daily Kaleva writes that the widespread use of masks by customers in shops has increased ID checks by cashiers.

Under the guidelines of the Finnish Grocery Trade Association anyone purchasing tobacco or alcohol who "appears" to be under the age of 30 should be asked to produce a photo ID.

But, with customers wearing masks it has become increasingly difficult for cashiers to judge the purchaser's age.

Therefore, Kaleva notes, more and more people are being asked to produce identification and to briefly drop their masks.

The paper reports that shops say that in general customers have responded well, and contrary to what might be expected, attempts by under-age customers to bypass age requirements by hiding behind their masks do not appear to be happening.

Customers can, of course, decline to remove their masks for an identity check, but in such cases cashiers are required to refuse sales of tobacco and alcohol.

The Finnish Grocery Trade Association has instructed members to make sure that hand disinfectant is available at all checkouts to be used, for example, after touching a mask during an ID check.

Countryside transport

The farmers' union daily Maaseudun Tulevaisuus writes that rural areas in Finland are in an unequal position in terms of public transport. It points out that while public transport is growing in the nation's cities, a bus is a rare sight in the countryside.

Even so, the need for public transport has not disappeared. As the population ages, the need for efficient public transport in rural areas is actually increasing. Those without a driving license and without a car are forced to find another way to get around.

The paper says that if the situation deteriorates further, demand must be met by increasing supply. This it says may require public funding.

Before the coronavirus epidemic, inter-city transport was largely driven by ticket revenues. Due to the virus, some of these connections are now barely profitable.

Maaseudun Tulevaisuus points to a recent Bus Association membership survey in which half of the respondents said their company’s turnover had fallen by more than 50 per cent.

The challenges are not new, though, the paper says. Throughout the 21st century, public authorities and politicians have tried to figure out how to make provincial public transport meet people’s needs. Public transport in itself is not a legal obligation and is difficult to make profitable in sparsely populated areas. Citizens still need to be guaranteed an adequate level of service. Even from more remote areas, you should be able get to population centres at least twice a week to take care of essential affairs.

Maaseudun Tulevaisuus points to regional cooperation as one model for improving rural transport services. In some parts of the country, municipalities have joined forces, so for example, in Päijät-Häme, the city of Lahti is responsible for organising public transport for the whole of the the province.

Digitalisation is also being used to improve the availability of transportation, with this paper noting the growing use of ride-sharing in rural areas.

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