A professor emeritus at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim has unleashed a torrent of criticism against both state and local Norwegian authorities. Dr Sven Erik Gisvold claims they have utterly failed in preparedness for an epidemic, and he’s not alone in his complaints.
Gisvold, who’s headed the anesthesiology department at St Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim, stresses that Norway now has among the lowest number of hospital beds per capita in Europe, while others also point to local communities’ failure to have any firm infection prevention plans at all.
Newspaper Aftenposten reports that fully 74 of Norway’s 326 kommuner (municipalities) lack plans for handling an epidemic, even though they’re required to have them by law. Most of the errant communities are small and the vast majority of them are located in relatively isolated areas of Northern Norway, but they include the popular city of Tromsø that has become a major tourism destination in recent years and a center for international gatherings.
That can explain why, when the Corona crisis descended on Norway, many local officials panicked, not least in Northern Norway and resorted to closing their borders to non-residents. Even neighbouring communities have been demanding that all arrivals from outside their area must undergo 14 days of quarantine. The lack of medical preparedness also led to owners of holiday homes all over Norway being denied access to their own property, for fear they’d overload local health care services should they fall ill.
Battling hospital bed decline for years
Professor Gisvold, meanwhile, has been among the most professional critics of both local and state authorities. As head of the anesthesiology department at St Olav’s, he’s complained before about the reduction in hospital beds nationwide. He now notes again that the total number of hospital beds in Norway has nearly been cut in half since 1980, even though the past four decades have been among the most prosperous in the country’s history.
“Too few beds, shortages of medicine … we have little to offer when trouble comes,” Professor Gisvold wrote in a scathing commentary published in Aftenposten. “Health Minister Bent Høie defends this by saying we don’t need more beds, because many treatments today are performed on an out-patient basis, admissions are shorter and we must work smarter.
“He’s correct up to a point, but it’s gone too far,” Gisvold continued. “Norwegian patients have already paid too high a price for the low capacity for many years. I question the minister’s perception of reality.”
He has previously questioned, in Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen, how hospital patients are sent home too quickly and, in his opinion, before it’s medically responsible to release them. Now, in the midst of the Corona crisis, he notes how hospitals all over Norway have had to postpone previously scheduled operations in order to clear space and staff for Corona patients.
This is a problem all over the world during the Corona crisis, and few countries are or arguably could be prepared for a pandeic like Corona. Hospital capacity in Norway, however, has been cut during a time when the country’s population has grown by 1.3 million. Pressure on hospitals has increased, while increasing numbers of small local hospitals have been shut down in favour of larger and more specialized regional hospitals.
Gisvold also questions how Norway only has three weeks worth of medicine in storage, while Finland, for example, has medicine stored for six to 10 months.
“And on top of all this, we have a shortage of protective gear (like face masks and surgical wear),” Gisvold wrote. He notes that the Corona warnings emerged four months ago, but no one apparently thought to stock up, even at a time when the Norwegian government had special ministers charged with being responsible with both national preparedness and elder care, all of them from the conservative Progress Party. Some of its most right-wing politicians, including Member of Parliament Christian Tybring-Gjedde, have been among the few complaining about how the Conservatives-led government coalition is tackling the Corona crisis.
“If we had taken the capacity problems seriously, we would have had a better chance of meeting the challenges now,” Gisvold concluded. “There will be a time after Corona. Then we’ll see whether anyone has learned from all this.”