Estonia Already Lives Online—Why Can’t the United States?

Using secure identification, people there can bank, apply for government assistance, file for sick leave, order prescriptions, and get medical care—all online.

Advertising in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2002

An advertising billboard in Estonia’s capital, TallinnIAN BERRY / MAGNUM

For one corner of the world, life during the coronavirus pandemic has stayed shockingly the same. Like much of the globe, people there are dealing with cabin fever, a lack of physical contact, and collective grief, for both the loved ones they’ve lost and a way of life they may never see again. But they’re exempt from the crashing halt of state services, the bumbling distribution of relief funds, the pillars of government groaning under the weight of performing their basic business amid the pandemic.

This is not a faraway digital superstate or an isolated cooperative. Geographically, it is not even located in the proverbial West. This is reality in Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million on the coast of the Baltic Sea that traded its post-Soviet identity for one of technological innovation and digital democracy.

The continuity of life there despite the pandemic isn’t a result of a macabre decision to sacrifice the elderly, or a convoluted idea to build “herd immunity.” No, citizens are staying home, and doing so fairly happily. In part, that’s because they don’t really need to leave; thanks to an infrastructure that has been in place for 20 years, many of life’s basic tasks can be done online.

Estonia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on February 27, and by March 12, the government approved emergency measures to combat its spread. The next day, the government began conducting most of its business digitally, and instructed schools to transition from in-person to distance learning. If they weren’t already using digital tools (and many were), municipal councils quickly shifted to online operations.

None of this is much of a departure from normal life. Using a digital identification card and a secure electronic signature, people in Estonia can bank, apply for government assistance, file for sick leave, order prescriptions, and get medical care online—no mask or hand sanitizer required. If an election were scheduled to take place while the country was under lockdown, citizens would simply use their ID cards to vote securely from the comfort and safety of their homes, as they have done since 2005. In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2019, 43 percent of voters cast ballots online.

The United States, meanwhile, is experiencing a carnival fun-house version of attempted technological innovation, running into trick walls and watching as tasks that could be much simpler contort into nightmarish versions of themselves. In April, the website through which small-business owners apply for a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program crashed due to the unanticipated load. The Senate, without provisions to work remotely, has returned to Capitol Hill, despite warnings from health-care professionals.

These are shortcomings that the U.S. and other Western countries (Britain began allowing lawmakers to videoconference into Parliament only once the pandemic began) have created and perpetuated. If the coronavirus has one positive effect, it’s the opportunity to begin a technological revolution that could leave our governments better functioning, more accessible, and more representative.

“We have this expression that [Estonia] is ‘digital Narnia,’” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s president from 2006 to 2016, told me over the phone from Palo Alto, California. “It’s a lot better than other places, but we’re not digital Narnia. We don’t fax our pizzas!”

Now a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford University, Ilves said the secret of what made “e-Estonia” tick—leaving the country well prepared for the pandemic, from a governing point of view—is not magic, but the secure, microchip-emblazoned ID card issued to every citizen. The document is residents’ bridge between the physical and digital worlds, allowing them an extremely secure way to sign documents, pay taxes, and access their bank accounts and public records online. People in Estonia need to show up in person for only three reasons: marriage, divorce, and the sale or transfer of real estate. “For 20 years, we haven’t had to go anywhere, to any office, to stand in line,” Ilves said.

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