How We Dealt with Coronavirus: Iceland

Its population is small, Iceland recorded just ten deaths during the course of the pandemic, though it held thousands of cases. SVANDÍS SVAVARSDÓTTIR and ELIZABETH KOLBERT share their thoughts…

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Icelandic Health Minister

Large scale and early testing gave us the critical information needed to tailor our response to the actual situation. Iceland’s targeted measures were moderate but effective, based on science and the best available information at any given time. Effective contact tracing protocols also contributed immensely to how quickly the authorities were able to get the pandemic under control, as 57 per cent of all those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 were already under quarantine, and therefore not contributing to the spread of the disease.

deCODE Genetics’ contribution was essential to the large scale screening that was done among the general public. Landspítali, the national university hospital in Iceland, has tested symptomatic individuals; and the collaboration between the public and private sector in this matter have been extremely important and beneficial in our response to and containment of COVID-19.

Elizabeth Kolbert

American journalist

At the height of the outbreak, Iceland’s government imposed a ban on gatherings of more than twenty people. It also closed high schools and universities. Primary schools and day-care centers remained open, on a limited schedule. The restrictions started to ease in early May. By the time I arrived, the schools had reopened, the limit on gatherings had been raised to fifty, and people were again getting their hair cut. Across from where I was staying, the building that once housed Iceland’s state telephone company was being converted into a hotel. Every day, I woke to the clang of construction.

In the absence of tourists, though, many businesses in Reykjavík remained shuttered. One day, I took a walk down Laugavegur, the city’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue. Spúútnik, a used-clothing store, was open, as was Swimwear & Bikini, a bathing-suit shop. But Óðinn, a store stocked with troll dolls and assorted other ‘Icelandic memorabilia’, was ‘closed until further notice’. So was Iceland Memories, a souvenir shop called Thor, and another souvenir store called idontspeakicelandic. I stopped by a shop that was stuffed with puffin figurines and model Viking ships. (This was an admitted violation of Scenario 5; by this point, though, I’d been tested for the virus myself, and the result had come back negative.) It was empty except for two women working there.

“We have no tourists and we are a tourist shop,” one of them said, when I asked about business. She hunched her shoulders together: “Normally, we are so crowded you can’t walk.”

Having effectively eliminated the virus (the week I was there, only one new case was confirmed), Iceland now finds itself in a position at once enviable and awkward. Obviously, the fewer people who enter the country, the less likely a new outbreak. But no visitors means empty hotels, unsold trolls, and thousands upon thousands of lost jobs. Icelandair may require a government bailout, but well before the virus hit, it was losing money.

Even as I was struggling to abide by the rules of my modified quarantine, longingly eying the coffee bars and the public loos, Icelandic authorities were considering how to reopen the ports. On May 12th, the country’s Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, announced a plan to let visitors into the country by mid-June. Under the plan, foreigners arriving at Keflavík would be presented with three options. They could show a certificate confirming a recent negative test, be screened for the virus, or go into quarantine. Who would perform the screening, and how this would all work, was left unspecified. The day after Jakobsdóttir’s announcement, I was talking to Kári Stefánsson about it when he asked, “Do you want to talk to the Prime Minister?” I said sure. He called her press secretary, who didn’t answer, so he dialled Jakobsdóttir directly. She picked up.

Jakobsdóttir, who is forty-four, is a member of the Left-Green Movement. She became prime minister in 2017, at a particularly turbulent moment in Icelandic politics: two governments had collapsed in quick succession, one owing to a scandal involving a sex offender, the other to a scandal involving offshore assets. She works out of a handsome building known as the Cabinet House, which was erected in the late eighteenth century as a prison. As I was ushered into her office, she told me she had agreed to see me mostly because it was easier than arguing with Stefánsson. I asked her why she thought Iceland had done so much better at dealing with Covid-19 than other countries. “We were following the news from China very closely,” she said. “So we started our preparations long before the first case tested positive here in Iceland. And it was very clear from the beginning that this was something that should be led by scientific and medical experts.” She went on, “And the experts, they were very humble. They were saying, ‘We really don’t know everything about this virus.’ And I think one of the strengths of the process is that we just said, ‘Well, we don’t know what is going to happen next.’ ”

Jakobsdóttir praised the work of the contact-tracing team, which had compelled one of her three sons to go into quarantine. (Her husband took him to a summer house for two weeks.) I asked about the plan to reopen the border. She noted that all the countries in Europe were struggling with this issue.

“We think we are taking a really cautious step, by saying we are going to start this experiment, where people can choose between a test or quarantine,” she said. “If it works well, it might become the arrangement, at least for the next few months. It won’t save the tourism sector in Iceland this year. We are very much aware of that. But we need somehow to insure that people can come and leave the island, and we need to do it without putting too much pressure on the healthcare system. So it’s a delicate balance.”

That evening, the weather was clear and cool… by New York standards, too cool to eat outside, by Reykjavík standards balmy. The outdoor cafés were crowded. Restaurants had been asked to arrange their tables to keep groups two metres apart, but some diners, I noticed, had pushed the tables closer together. Everyone was talking and laughing, masklessly. The scene was completely ordinary, which is to say now exotic. Just people meeting up with friends for dinner. For a traveller these days, this might be an even better draw, I thought, than glaciers or whale-watching.

SVANDÍS SVAVARSDÓTTIR is Iceland’s Minister of Health.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT writes for The New Yorker.

For the latest Nordic news, follow @FikaOnlineBlog on Twitter.

Extracts of this article have also been published in Health Europa and The New Yorker.

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