Helena Ruotsala (University of Turku):

An invisible border becomes visible again – how Covid-19 split the Tornio Valley in two. The case of the twin city of Tornio-Haparanda

In this presentation, I will focus on the matter that has led to this Finno-Ugrian Congress being postponed by one year to August next year, with the exception of this online conference: my topic is Covid-19, or the coronavirus pandemic, and how it has affected the daily lives of the inhabitants of one Finno-Ugric region. In terms of region, my presentation deals with the border area between Finland and Sweden, known as the Tornio Valley; some also call it Meänmaa today. The focus of my presentation is on the twin city of Tornio-Haparanda, which has been one of my research topics in recent years. I have investigated cross-border aspects of life, trans-nationalism and representations of everyday life there.

I would also like to emphasize that my presentation does not deal with the coronavirus itself, its symptoms or its illness and the experiences of illness, nor with the fact that the coronavirus strategies of the Finnish and Swedish states differ considerably; these differences have been hotly debated since March. Yet the different strategies of the two nation states have also influenced how the border has been, and still is, perceived, and how it has affected people's daily lives in the region since March. There was talk of the coronavirus in Finland and Sweden, as elsewhere, as soon as Covid-19 spread; millions and millions of ‘experts’ – which is to say laypeople – on the coronavirus and its spread suddenly appeared everywhere; it was such a popular topic and its importance was overpowering.

In March, when the Covid-19 virus arrived in the Nordic countries and spread to become a pandemic, the government of each country came up with its own solution. Of course, these solutions were based on the advice and recommendations of the health authorities. In order to control the virus, Finland's borders were closed by a government decree at midnight on 19 March.  

In the twin city of Tornio-Haparanda, the border figuratively split the heart: the border was drawn using riot fences through the heart of the cities' shared Victoria Square. The heart is meant for photography and marks a border between countries that is not otherwise visible. Now, the border between the nation states of Sweden and Finland could then only be crossed at certain official places controlled by border guards.

The effect of this new boundary, drawn as a result of the coronavirus, on local everyday life is the subject of my presentation. Why was there such a strong and emotion response to this border, which was now visible again? Everyone had their own view on it, but why and how did this emerge? This gave rise the title of my presentation: an invisible border becomes visible again. But before I turn to discussing people's experiences of this border, it must first briefly be explained when and why this border between Finland and Sweden arose, as it is a relatively new border, not having been drawn up until 1809. The history of the border also affects today's experiences of it.