An Estonian tried to warn Spain

Priit Pullerits
Kristjan Kelt.
Kristjan Kelt. Photo: Erakogu

Kristjan Kelt (42), a programmer residing in Luxembourg with his family for the past dozen years, took a couple of days off at the end of next to last week. “I had to survive somehow,” he explained. “Not just myself but all the others as well.”

He was interested what the coronavirus was doing next to his residence in the Grand Duchy, in Germany. More than 800 people had already died on another European great power, Italy. In other words, an average six out of every 100 infected. Covid-19 had been much more lenient in Germany by that time – only one out of every 500 infected had died.

The difference in mortality rate between two countries separated only by a fifty-kilometer strip of Austria was thirtyfold.

What Kelt, paid by the private sector but working for the European Parliament, discovered during the two free days, turned out to be a vital warning for Spain, which – as we learned late last week – reported a steep increase of corona infections. And secondly, as Kelt assures – his conclusions contain a vital lesson for Estonia.

“I believe that Estonia has a good chance of repeating Germany’s experience,” he says, “since Estonia is relatively well informed of the necessity to protect the high risk groups.”

In fact, Kelt became interested in the coronavirus already when the problem was limited to China, although data showed that it was spreading very fast, much more rapidly than previous similar outbreaks. But he began to study it only after the virus began to spread in Europe.

The problem he wondered about – and which is of vital importance – was: if mortality in Germany is so much lower than in Italy, despite the high number of those infected, then what is its reason? He just wanted to think along, although he admitted: “At the end of the day it is just the desire to survive.”

The family problem

Kelt did not do anything very specific; he did not even have to program anything. He mined the web for data and used a regular electronic spreadsheet to test some likely explanations.

First, although German hospitals have more than twice the number of intensive care units per 100,000 people than those in Italy, it is unlikely that this explains the higher mortality rate in Italy, especially in the initial stage of the epidemic when the health care system has not yet been overwhelmed, he concluded.

Secondly, the higher mortality rate in Italy cannot be caused by a significantly older population compared with Germany, since the demographic structure of the two countries is relatively similar, Kelt concluded.

Thus he finally reached the hypothesis that the devastating effect of the coronavirus in Italy was caused by the fact that several generations usually live there in the same household, while the young Germans usually move out of the parents’ home and reside separately. This means that in Germany, the young who, according to data available so far, are less susceptible to the virus, cannot infect the elderly members of the family. And the coronavirus has turned out to be the most deadly for the elderly.

Belated warning

But Kelt considered the explanation of the situation less urgent than predicting, which European country would be the next one to be hit hard by the virus.

It was Spain, he concluded a week and a half ago. As it happens, 80 percent of youths in Spain live with their parents.

The gathered data depicted a clear and steeply rising curve, which showed that the situation in Spain will become as bad as that in Italy at least.

And that was what happened: a report Sunday morning that over 300 people died in Spain in 24 hours. The total figure of victims increased to 1,326. Twenty-four hours later the virus had claimed 2,182 lives.

Kelt crated and registered the website the week before the last to spread his early forecast. He admits that it was a sense of moral duty. He also attempted to deliver his message to Spain through other channels. He sent his alarming conclusion to a dozen Estonian virologists, three of whom had promised to send if to their Spanish colleagues.

Andres Merits, University of Tartu Professor of applied virology, whom Kelt had contacted, admits that Kelt had pointed out useful aspects in several cases. “It is clear that Germany and Italy differ [as to the effect of the virus],” he says, “but why – I have not had the time and resources to study all the details. I wish I could understand what is going on in Estonia!” The main problem, according to Merits, is the persisting shortage of data necessary for reaching definitive conclusions.

Irja Lutsar, University of Tartu Professor of virology, agrees that the situation in Italy is terrible, adding.” A really bad situation is usually not caused by a single factor.”  She reminds that one of the causes of the crisis may have been that the Italian public health system simply collapsed under the coronavirus assault and that health care in Spain had been underfinanced for years as well.

Kelt is not claiming either that he knows the definite truth. But it is a fact that, according to the latest data, the spreading of the coronavirus has been the most expensive among the elderly and the general mortality rate has increased twofold.

Now as Spain is struggling with the impact of the virus, Kelt considers it vital that his warning reaches as many Estonians as possible, especially the elderly people.

“Estonia is not Italy,” he says. Estonia is more similar to Germany as to the organization of its daily life and Germany shows that if we can protect the high risk groups, we can survive this epidemic more easily.”

Vital conclusions

The elderly people should leave their homes only for walks on their own. They may not use public transport or go shopping. Food and other necessary items must be delivered by children or couriers and left at the door. If the younger generation cannot help and couriers cannot reach the needy, they should approach the social workers.

Younger people living together with their grandparents or meeting with them personally must avoid contacts with the other youths since they may unwittingly catch infection and bring it home. Young people are often unaware of the chronic health problems of their elderly family members.

Unless we protect our health responsibly right now, the medical system would not be able to help us.

“Everyone should now behave as if the world depended on them,” Kelt recommends.