Regional Norwegian costumes known as a bunad have long been a symbol of national pride and identity, and worn on special or formal occasions. In recent weeks, however, they’ve suddenly become a symbol of protest by women battling to preserve local health care services and maternity wards.
It all started earlier this year with a group of women in Kristiansund on Norway’s northwest coast. They’re furious over their state health care agency’s decision to shut down the local maternity ward, part of ongoing consolidation of health services all over the country.
The theory is that larger, more modern regional hospitals can better care for patients than small local hospitals. It’s argued that a larger professional milieu will attract and retain more skilled doctors and nurses, while consolidating medical services can also offer economies of scale.
That hasn’t gone down well with residents of Kristiansund and other small- to mid-size towns that face losing their local hospitals and health care services. Many pregnant women and their midwives also fear they simply won’t make it to a larger hospital that’s farther away in time for delivery.
Kristiansund was already among Norwegian cities slated to lose its local hospital when a new, larger hospital is built to be shared by both Kristiansund and the city of Molde. News that local maternity services would also be disappear was the last straw.
Several formed what they call the Bunadsgeriljaen, literally a guerilla group made up of women wearing bunads. They’ve been noisily marching and protesting ever since, and now their movement is spreading around the country. On Wednesday, a large contingent of bunad-clad women with clenched fists and shouting slogans marched in the country’s largest May 1st parade in Oslo.
Earlier in the week the “bunad guerillas” had demonstrated both inside and outside the Parliament (Stortinget) in Oslo. They’re protesting a goverment proposal to move the capital’s large Ullevål University Hospital to a new high-rise building that will be constructed adjacent to the National Hospital (Rikshospitalet) at Gaustad. They teamed up with the Redd Ullevål (Save Ullevål) protest organization to demonstrate both against shutting down Ullevål and in favour of reopening the smaller Aker Hospital for use by the residents of Oslo’s Groruddalen district and as a much-needed emergency hospital to relieve pressure on the current Legevakt downtown.
The debate over the fate of Ullevål has raged for several years, and is now turning from a local urban issue in Oslo to a national issue, not least since severely ill and injured patients are often airlifted to Ullevål for treatment. The Center Party, the Socialist Left (SV) and Reds party are all firmly against phasing ut Ullevål and turning its sprawling location into a housing and commercial development. They won support from the bunad-clad guerillas.
“The choice of wearing a bunad as protest apparel in the hospital uproar can be seen as a response to a rising feeling of being overlooked in their own home regions,” commentator Bente R Gravklev wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen this week. She thinks Bunadsgeriljaen sees evolving health care services in Norway “as being managed in an manner that not ours,” but more like a profit-oriented business.
“It’s still yours and my tax money that’s being used, but when our hospitals are run more and more like companies, it’s understandable that the desire to grab our traditional garments arises,” Gravklev wrote, “just like the need for brown cheese when we’ve been abroad for awhile.”
Few things arouse such “warm thoughts about our own country as the bunad,” Gravklev added. “We wear them on special occasions like weddings and confirmations, and on the 17th of May (Constitution Day). They’re highly formal but also safe and secure. Now they’ve become a symbol of the battle for what kind of health and welfare services we want to keep for the future.”
Plans to replace the venerable Ullevål with a new, large hospital at Gaustad in Oslo have split Norway’s conservative government coalition, just like plans to close a hospital in Nordmøre did during the former left-center government coalition. Health Minister Bent Høie from the Conservative Party now faces new financing concerns from government colleagues representing the Progress and Liberal parties that can further delay the project. Doctors and nurses at Ullevål mostly oppose the consolidation.
The contingency against shutting down Ullevål was by far the largest in Wednesday’s May Day parade in Oslo. Other hospital debates rage from Finnmark in the far north (where Finnmarkssykehuset faces merger with the University Hospital in Tromsø), to Møre og Romsdal and Telemark. There’s also been lengthy debate over plans to build a new hospital at Moelven that will serve residents of parts of Hedmark and Oppland counties. It was approved just a few months ago.
“It’s all about consolidating functions and expertise,” argue both the board leader and managing director of the Oslo University Hospital that’s the “parent” of Ullevål and Radium Hospital that specializes in cancer treatment. “It’s not a goal to shut down (Ullevål) but rather to renew and reinvigorate our hospitals so they can best serve the public,” they wrote in a recent joint defense of the Gaustad plans. “The most important thing is to gather our regional and national functions so that we can develop capacity and competence.”
They’ll still need to brace for the bunad guerillas who object mightily. More bunad parades are expected in the weeks and months ahead, and not just on the 17th of May or because it will be high season for weddings, confirmations and christenings.