NEWS ANALYSIS: As Norway’s government struggles to fine-tune its battle plan against Corona, and relies on a strong sense of Norwegian solidarity, it also finds itself battling a multitude of critics who reckon that current measures to contain the virus go too far – or perhaps not far enough.
Several legal experts, for example, voiced grave concern over Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s request this week for emergency powers, allowing her ministers to set aside laws as needed to control the spread of Corona infection. Among the critics of the proposed emergency law was Hans Petter Graver, a law professor at the University of Oslo, who warned that preparing such a law without transparency could threaten the rule of law in Norway. “Only imagination limits the ways it could be used,” Graver said.
Geir Lippestad, a lawyer and former member of Oslo’s City government, called the proposal “madness,” opting instead for working out fast-track decision-making procedures in Parliament.
“We expect our leaders to be able to achieve that,” Lippestad told ABC Nyheter. “This is about preserving the public’s confidence.”
‘The Debate’ debated
The legal experts’ criticism followed similar controversy over issues raised in Debatten (The Debate), a prime-time talk show on state broadcaster NRK. On Tuesday evening, Dr Gunhild Alvik Nyborg, a researcher at Oslo University Hospital, broadly dismissed Norway’s battle plan as being too little, too late, and warned that Norway could see Corona patients and deaths on the scale of Italy.
Nyborg asserted that the Norwegian authorities have no control, and demanded two weeks of total isolation of almost everyone in the country. Nyborg even likened the government’s strategy against the Corona virus to how a former Norwegian government was woefully unprepared for, and put up little resistance to, the Nazi German invasion in 1940.
“This is war,” Nyborg claimed. “It’s like saying that the German (invaders) are on their way, but that it’s probably not so dangerous and that they’re unlikely to do much harm.” Nyborg said.
Media commentators and medical professionals, however, slammed the program and dismissed Nyborg’s claims as “alarmist” and “doomsday prophecies,” nurturing panic in a population already very worried over the current state of affairs.
“I’m glad Gunhild Alvik Nyborg is not in charge of Norway’s health authorities,” Pål Gulbrandsen, a professor at the University of Oslo, wrote on Twitter. “And I’m equally happy to live in a country where she’s allowed to speak. But she’s not an expert, far from it.”
Criticism of Tuesday’s Debatten was so harsh that its TV celebrity host Fredrik Solvang ran another debate on Wednesday, with a more balanced panel of experts, some of them more suppportive of the government’s chosen measures, and less gloomy about the prospects of taming the Corona virus. Solvang also apologized for the way he had handled things the night before, when he allowed Nyborg unprecedented air time to present her frightening message, while other participants in the program were given little opportunity to challenge her.
Look to Sweden?
The heated debate over Debatten sheds uncomfortable light on the deeper doubts and wider disagreements over Norway’s choice of battle plan against the aggressive virus. Many of Norway’s strategic choices a
While authorities in Norway, for example, have shut down most alpine ski resorts, their competitors just across the Swedish border have been allowed to stay in business. NRK aired a report this week showing how Sweden’s large Sälen ski area, less than 100 kilometers from Norway’s shut-down Trysil ski center, was full of skiers and crowded after-ski parties. Norway has also pleaded with owners of mountain cabins to go home, fearing that out-of-towners would overly burden local, ill-prepared health services.
Sweden has also been less keen than Norway to shut down schools, arguing that many children and youths are better off at school than at home. Denmark, meanwhile, has acted notably faster and more aggressively than Norway in closing its borders.
The challenges of finding a balance
Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized on Thursday that the state of the nation today would have looked like a dystopia just a short while ago. While praising Norway’s authorities for giving health officials extra emergency powers early on, the editorial also stressed that decisions in a time of crisis must be law-based and justifiable from a medical perspective.
“The authorities are forced to make decisions under very difficult circumstances, and they could make mistakes,” Aftenposten wrote. “Finding a balance is challenging indeed.
“Pre-emptive measures may be justified given the uncertainty of this pandemic, but the measures should not exceed what is medically justifiable. That’s important, not least to preserve the public’s confidence in advice and recommendations from government.”
A prominent epidemiology scholar, Svenn-Erik Mamelund at Oslo Metropolitan Unversity (OsloMet), worries that Norway’s “extreme” policies could turn out to be excessive, costing more than they yield.
“Little research is available in this field, so the knowledge we have is an uncertain base for such invasive and heavy-handed measures against the spread of infection,”Mamelund told newspaper Dagsavisen.
Mamelund is a specialist on the Spanish flu, which plagued the global population a century ago and resulted in a large number of deaths in Norway, too. Last year Mamelund sat on a panel of the World Health Organisation (WHO), making recommendations for containing flu outbreaks and pandemics
Among other things, that panel recommended strongly against closing international borders and putting entire populations in quarantine, as some countries have decided to do during the current oubreak.
“The chief argument aganst such extreme measures was that they would excessively restrict people’s freedom. Social and economic drawbacks would be overwhelming, ” Mamelund said of the WHO panel’s line of thinking.
“Besides, we did not have credible scientific proof that it would work.”
Letting China set the standard
Mamelund told Dagsavisen that he believes several nations favour rather draconian measures because China, using lockdown, curfew and its deeper dictatorial powers to silence dissent, has been able to set the standard for managing this pandemic.
“The question is what the effect will be on infection rates and mortality, and what the fallout will be for labour relations and the economy,” Mamelund said. “We are now going very far in order to save lives.”