Solidarity Over Distance

Discussion with Annegrete Johanson

Annegrete Johanson works as a mediator of the Social Insurance Board of Estonia, teaches youth work at Tallinn University, and she is a Board member and project manager of MTÜ RauCrew, a youth service NGO, offering prevention and conflict management programmes. She has observed an increasing tension within the mediation services in Estonia, being stressed by time constraints and overload of cases because of the imposed restriction from the one side, and new conflicts caused by the ongoing crisis emerging from the other side. This led her to be one of the initiators of an international forum to share emerging good practices for online mediation, a discussion that includes several members of the EFRJ and is still going on. We asked Annegrete about the challenges she is facing in Estonia as part of our #SolidarityOverDistance updates. 

Annegrete Johanson

How did the society in Estonia react to the ongoing crisis? 

The country reacted to the crisis with a little delay. At an early stage it was not treated seriously by all of the authorities. There was a spokesperson for example who joked about Covid-19. But by now the big the picture is that the country’s reaction is resolute. When the first positive cases were confirmed, a ban was introduced for larger events and trainings. Shopping malls, entertainment facilities and sport clubs were closed. Later, the schools were closed as well. Students are homeschooled. 

We have a restriction on movement, people are allowed to walk only in pairs in public spaces, and they are supposed to keep at least two meters distance from other people. Many people work at home and all the children should be also at home. 

Individuals react differently: there are some who are not that scared, while others feel quite a vulnerable, mostly because their family members are at risk. I observed, that in four weeks the attitude of the people has changed. People do not go so much outside anymore. They do hold the distance from other people. They do not meet with their friends. Meetings are moved to online space. However, I think that we do not really know how the people think and feel because no one asks it systematically. We can only assume it.

You mentioned that in some cases people who contracted the virus were blamed. It is something that seemed to occur in the other countries as well. How can professionals deal with such situations? 

Information is the key here. Providing information for the communities is the most important. Fear among the people is significant, and there is a lot of uncertainty. For example, we do not know if the people who are healed from Covid-19 can get sick again. We know about different cases when people were thrown out from local shops and there is some finger pointing going on. In such situations professionals and members of the community have a lot of work to do, because there can be long-term consequences.

How can professionals working in mediation respond to such problems? 

It starts at how and what the people are talking, and it is also significant, what kind of information will be available. The actions the government and local communities can make are both essential, for example supporting people who loose their jobs.

At the Social Insurance Board we offer different assistance and information services, victim support helpline, support on different levels. We also plan to offer different circles for communities, so affected people can share their thoughts and feelings about the ongoing situation in safe environment. If there is an existing conflict, we can offer conflict mediation on a virtual platform.

Can you carry on with mediation? 

At the moment, our regular mediation service has been put on hold. We make phone calls and inform the parties that we received the decision allowing mediation, but we cannot meet them in person because of the imposed restrictions. We started to explore how to move our mediation online because if we wait one or two months more there will be too many cases, and the mediators will have too much work to do. We have been using mainly Skype for this. I have to instruct and encourage the mediators, as not all of them are ready for this kind of shift. One of their main concerns is that we can never be sure who else is in the room, since we can only see an area framed by the camera. It could be that during a preparatory talk even the perpetrator is present without us noticing it. Another issue is of course that many people do not have access to the internet. I am happy though that most of them are ready to explore solutions to the emerging issues.

Is the time limit for mediation in penal cases still applicable in Estonia?

Mediation in penal cases come to us mostly from prosecutor’s office. We used to have two months for mediation, now this is extended to three months because of the restrictions. One of our challenges is that many people who have to take part in mediation do not have opportunities to go online. We still try to offer this opportunity for the parties to reduce the workload of our mediators after the restrictions are lifted.

"Many conflict situations and violence come from the imposed restrictions, for example for conflicts emerging between siblings or parents and children."

What other impacts did the crisis have on your work?

We see that some among our youth are gathering in groups. They think that they are protected from Covid-19. We started to offer restorative circles for them at my organisation. We have two complementary programmes. A preventive one for those youngsters who have not done anything wrong. We aim to approach them through youth and social workers. We start the circle once we have at least young people ready to participate in it. We have a set of questions for them, and by the end we also ask for their feedback. They often claim that experience that finally someone asks what they want and how they feel. 

Our other programme is for those who have been caught by police, because they have disregarded the 2+2 rule ( 2 meters distance + 2 people maximum), and could get a fine as consequence of that. The police has the option to direct them to participate in circles instead.  In this model the size of the group depends on how many the police are referring to us and participating youngsters already know each other. It is a new service, so we haven’t had such a circle yet. 

At the moment we are also reorganising our work. We were supposed to deliver a training for future restorative justice volunteers, when it was announced that but trainings cannot be held anymore. So we have to move our training online and adapt its content. We plan to offer online restorative circles and conflict mediation because  many conflict situations and violence come from the imposed restrictions, for example for conflicts emerging between siblings or parents and children. In general, we start by asking what kind of thoughts and feelings they have at the moment, or what are the most challenging things for them. I have had a lot of communication with foreign colleagues to collect good practices and to design our plans.

And how does the crisis affect you personally? 

I have two children, they are three and eight years year old. Both of them are at home, and also we, the parents, are working from home. It is quite a big challenge. But I have to say that my eight years old daughter is very independent and she also plays with her little sister, so we can get some work done. But we have to check her school work, because if she can, she tries to take the easy road. For the children it is hard to stay at home and not to meet with their friends or grandparents. Working from home shifts the work schedule to late hours when all are sleeping. Today we have many challenges to work out new interventions. It is all very exciting but also challenging. But we  have to remember that everything ends once.will end on one day.