Finland has an unusual coronavirus problem.
A shipment of 2 million protective masks arrived from China this week to help deal with the pandemic. But the government body that coordinates the country’s supply of essential goods — the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency (NESA) — said on Wednesday that lab tests had shown the masks were sub-standard and not suitable for hospital use.
Hours later, Tiina Jylhä — a tabloid celebrity, reality TV star and owner of a plastic surgery clinic in Estonia — announced that she had been cheated out of millions of euros for her role in procuring masks.
According to Jylhä, her company, Look Medical Care, had signed a €5 million deal with the Finnish government to get masks from China. But at the last minute, Jylhä told the weekly Suomen Kuvalehti magazine that the money was diverted into the Belgian bank account of Finnish businessman Onni Sarmaste.
“The heist happened overnight,” Jylhä said.
Sarmaste has a different version of events. He claims it was his company that struck a deal with the Finnish government and he had merely contacted Jylhä to enquire about using her clinic as a supplier of masks.
“They said they didn’t have the goods,” Sarmaste told Helsingin Sanomat, so he bought the masks from elsewhere.
Sarmaste added that Jylhä and her husband Tape Valkonen had threatened him and hired the Hells Angels biker gang to try to get the €5 million. The businessman said someone tried to break into his apartment in the middle of the night and a stone was thrown through his window. Helsinki police confirmed they are investigating. Jylhä says the accusations are false.
On Thursday, the head of the government agency admitted that corners had been cut as the country raced to get sought-after masks.
In an online press briefing, Tomi Lounema, the CEO of NESA, said the agency had in fact bought protective masks from both Sarmaste and Jylhä. Both deals were worth around €5 million, he said.
“The big, the fast and the rich will eat everyone else. The market is very difficult,” Lounema said.
It will be weeks before Finland can start producing its own masks, he said, and in a rush to replenish depleting stocks, NESA had prioritized delivery speed and price over choosing the most reliable supplier.
“We did not follow the necessary due diligence that one could have expected from us,” Lounema said. “We have made deals that in a normal situation we would not have made.”
Lounema said it was Sarmaste’s shipment that contained the sub-standard masks. Sarmaste maintains that the 2 million masks were hospital standard, but for Chinese hospitals not Finnish ones.
Finland has already paid in full for the faulty batch and Lounema said it is unclear whether the government will be able to get its money back from Sarmaste. The results of an investigation into the scandal will be presented after Easter.
Jylhä’s shipment of masks has not arrived. The newspaper Ärileht reported that Estonian bank Luminor has frozen Jylhä’s account over a suspicious transfer of €5 million.
“We are very sorry about this situation. It is very important that we can provide protective gear to the Finnish health care system and to get it as fast and of the highest quality as possible. We will continue to do that with lessons learned from this,” Lounema said.