[Opinion] Þetta reddast: the way Iceland is handling the Covid19 crisis

eric-lluent

 

 

 

 Èric Lluent / Reykjavík

The Icelandic expression Þetta reddast means ‘it will all work out okay’ and is useful to understand how Icelanders face life: being positive, thinking about the present. In general, Icelanders think short term and do not like to plan too much. The outstanding banking collapse in 2008 is a great example of this way of understanding life and business. But the truth is that Iceland is good at finding solutions to problems -even big ones. And this, in my opinion, creates a strong self-confidence that, sometimes, can be counterproductive.

I am a journalist and tour guide from Barcelona living in Iceland for four years now, even though I visited the country for the first time in 2008, after the financial collapse. My first two books were on the writing of a new constitution in Iceland and the construction of the ‘Icelandic Economic Miracle’ myth. I truly love Iceland, but there are certain things I do not understand. Since foreign workers like me are not guests but part of the community, I deeply feel that I have the right, even the duty, of sharing my critical thoughts on how Iceland is handling the Covid19 crisis. First of all, I would like to highlight that my income depends on tourism. If I would think about my personal economic interest, I would not write this article. But there are things beyond money.

  • The ‘motto’ #1 is ‘Save The Tourism’. I learned a lesson from 2008 crisis: the interests of the economic elites are not related in any way to the interests of the common people. And, certainly, governments are closer to the economic elites than the common people. It is clear now that the main goal for the Icelandic government is to save the economy, instead of putting the health in the first place. Why I say this? Well, we are welcoming in the country people from high-risk areas, like China, Italy, South Korea, Spain, France and Germany without any restriction. “The Chief Epidemiolgist in Iceland has declared certain areas with high risk for infection. This does not mean that people cannot travel to Iceland from those areas or that they need to quarantine”, is said in an official government document published by the Ministry of Industries and Innovation. Actually, residents in Iceland coming from these countries are sent to quarantine, while tourists coming from the very same places are welcomed to travel around the island. Furthermore, according to a resident coming from Spain through London, there are no oficial controls at the airport, so, in fact, residents and tourists coming from high-risk areas are not being monitored in any way, which obviously poses a risk for the whole Icelandic population.
  • The argument is ‘tourists do not interact with high-risk groups’. Those supporting this argument are missing a point. Even though most of workers in tourism are young (and, let’s say it, foreigners), these workers have contact with locals that can spread the virus to high-risk groups. Some guides and drivers are seniors, and right now they are working in close spaces, like buses, with people from high-risk areas. Tourists themsleves can belong to high-risk groups, thinking they are safe since there are no restrictions for tourists in Iceland. Those taking decisions are not in contact with tourists. The safety recommendations are nearly imposible to implement in tourism sector, so in fact, these measures can’t be taken by many workers in the sector. Think about this: how it is posible for a guide to keep 2 meters distance from every single traveller and to make sure that all travellers at all time keep this 2 meters with all others? Same in restaurant or bars. Accept it. In tourism is not posible to follow the new official rules, that is why some hotel and restaurant owners have decided to close their business, for safety. Would Primer Minister Katrín Jakobssdóttir or other members of the cabinet feel safe working in a bus, bar, restaurant or hotel reception full of people from high-risk areas?
  • The feeling is ‘Iceland knows what to do and, actually, is doing very well’. Icelandic government wants you to feel safe. And this is understandable. They are the experts, they know what to do, since this a modern society and, on top of this, we are vikings, so Þetta reddast! -joke-. Icelandic medias are overwhelming supporting the oficial version, sharing the governmental information and playing a key role in the oficial strategy. Some are even tempted to talk -again- about the ‘Icelandic Lesson’ -sometimes, it is good to learn lesson from abroad, too. But this is a communication campaign. We have to look at facts, not just words. And here are two facts: 1) infected tourists without symptoms from high-risk areas can entry Iceland and travel around the country without a single medical check; 2) locals can be spreading the virus at work, schools, swimming pools, bars and restaurants. This virus is highly contagious. The numbers right now do not look so bad, but if strict measures are not taken soon, the scenario in two or three weeks can be devastating. Covid19 is a pandemia undermining strong nations. Iceland is not an exception at all. Virus is here and there is just one way to stop it: to quarantine as many as posible at the same time while banning the entry of people from high-risk areas.
  • The threat is that ‘economic crisis will be worse than any pandemic’. It seems that Icelandic government is of the same opinion as the British. Their point is to find a balance to keep economy and population both in good health. But it looks like there is no understanding of the global situation. The countries where most of our tourists come from are facing heavy hardships and the situation will be worsening next weeks. Nothing we can do. Remember that because of Spanish Civil War in 1936-1939 Iceland faced a great economic crisis, after the selling of salted cod to Spain dropped dramatically. Our economy relies on exports, so there is no way we can control what happens in other countries. We have to adapt and see which opportunities we can have. In my opinion, the wiser position right now is to understand the great health problem that other nations are facing, act with responsibility, following all the recommendations from the World Health Organization. The sooner we pass the highest peak of the outbreak in Europe and America, the sooner Icelandic economy will recover. I am sure a lot of people will lose a lot of money. But if we had money to bail out the banking system in 2008, we surely should have money now to rescue workers and small and medium businesses. Maybe, some could help with their money in Panama. 
  • The trend of daily % increase of diagnosed Covid19 cases in Iceland is, at least, worrying. Taking into account the small population of Iceland, it is always difficult the compare numbers with other nations. For the writing of this article I studied the daily % increase of diagnosed Covid19 cases in Iceland. It has never been lower than 10%, and for the last 10 days it has been as it follows: 11% _ 15% _ 19% _ 30% _ 14% _ 16% _ 16% _ 12% _ 10% _ 22%. The average for the last ten days is 16,5%. If we do not manage to stop this trend, in 10 days the number of infected by coronavirus in Iceland would be around 987 (keeping the same daily average increase). In 20 days, 4546 infected. I am not saying this will be the scenario in 10 or 20 days. Hopefully, not. I’m just looking at the numbers and trying to understand how the worse case scenario in Iceland would look like in 20 days, to spread awareness. The measures taken in Iceland, like the quarantine of thousands -if everyone is following it, which is not sure at all-, will for sure help lowering the rate of daily new cases. But on the other hand, welcoming tourists from high-risk areas will ensure some new focuses of infection. I don’t really understand why we are accepting this risk, but it looks like a desperate action to make as much money as posible before borders close around Europe.
  • Iceland is not following the recommendations of WHO on the ‘Management of ill travellers at points of entry – international airports, ports and ground crossings – in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak’. WHO recommends countries to detect ill travellers at international points of entry. Is Iceland doing this? According to people that has entered the country during the last week, there are not such controls. All Icelandic authorities did on this matter is to publish a document in English saying that ‘tourists are welcome to Iceland and we hope that you have a pleasant stay’, suggesting visitors to wash hands and asking  those with cold symptoms and coming from high-risk areas to call +3545444113. That is all. To not follow instructions from WHO –here you can read the document I am refering to and judge by yourself– while welcoming people from high risk areas without medical controls does not sounds really safe to me. 

This is my humble opinion. Of course, I welcome other points of view, opinions and data to discuss this issue further.

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