Preparedness was ‘not a real priority’

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Does it take a crisis to get political leaders to respond to looming threats? Yes, according to two Norwegian academics who have analyzed 233,000 speeches in Parliament over the past 21 years. They only found 81 mentions of the word “pandemic,” just as an investigation into how the current government has addressed the Corona crisis gets underway.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg has been working hard to get Norway through the Corona crisis, but many claim her government was poorly prepared for it. Now she’s appointed Dr Stener Kvinnsland (right) to evaluate how her government has handled the crisis. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Professor Jon H Fiva and his colleage Oda Nedregård at the Norwegian Business School BI outlined their findings in a recent commentary published in newspaper Aftenposten. In it, they noted that “politicians need to get us through crises, but it looks like they’re poorly prepared.” The threat of a pandemic just wasn’t on the pressing political radar until people really started falling ill.

It seems to be a chronic problem in Norway, despite all the lessons from World War II and vows to “never again” be caught unprepared for an invasion. Now the invader is an invisible virus, for which neither the government, the opposition nor the medical community was adequately prepared.

Newspaper editorial writers in Norway have also been writing reams about how preparedness has simply not been a priority, eerily similar to how the threat of terrorism hadn’t been a priority before July 22, 2011 either, and certainly not from a home-grown right-wing extremist. Political leaders seemingly need to be jarred into action, usually on a reactive instead of a proactive basis.

Problem spans political spectrum
Their failure to act also seems to stretch across the entire political spectrum. Now the current conservative government’s response to the Corona crisis will be examined by an independent commission, but the former Labour government wouldn’t likely have been any better prepared either. Even though a pandemic crisis and shortages of the medical gear needed to meet it have long been viewed as likely, wrote Fiva and Nedregård, hardly any Norwegian politicians talked about it, on either the right- or left sides of Norwegian politics.

Fiva and Nedregård stressed that the scanty mentions of a pandemic also occurred after swine flu swept the globe in 2009. In the decade leading up to that, both the Conservative and Labour parties led government coalitions, just as they have in the 11 years since. There was no major stocking-up of protective gear or medicine during the Labour-led government that was in power from 2005 to 2013, nor did it commence when the Conservatives assumed government control six-and-a-half years ago.

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre (far right) is a former health minister himself, shown here visiting a hospital in Northern Norway in 2013. He’s criticized a lack of preparedness for the Corona virus, but it’s questionable whether there would have been more on his watch. PHOTO: Helsedepartementet

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, a former health minister himself, has nonetheless been among the leading critics of the shortages that loomed when the Corona crisis hit in earnest two months ago. He also led the call for a major evaluation of preparedness and the government’s handling of the crisis since. He has criticized what he views as a lack of leadership prior to March 12, when Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s government announced strict new Corona containment measures that shut down much of the country.

As Corona testing picked up and Norwegian hospitals filled up, Støre noted how Solberg’s government had even created a ministerial post devoted to preparedness. It was placed within the justice ministry and held by politicians from the Progress Party. Preparing for a pandemic, however, was clearly not high on Progress’ or Solberg’s agenda, which instead seemed dominated by the threat of terrorism, not a virus from abroad.

Støre and his Labour Party have earlier been criticized themselves for being woefully unprepared when their own government and youth organization became the targets of terrorist attacks on July 22, 2011. That led to the formation of the July 22 Commission that investigated preparedness and response, widely condemned both, and led to some improvements.

New commission formed
Labour-leader Støre pushed hard for a similar sort of commission to probe preparedness and response to Corona. While Prime Minister Solberg has received high marks for how her government has responded to Corona, Støre told newspaper Klassekampen that for him, “there’s a ‘before- and after March 12′” divide that needs to be addressed.

It will be now, after Solberg herself appointed Professor Stener Kvinnsland to lead a commission that will chart how Norwegian authorities prepared for and carried out their response to the Corona outbreak. Kvinnsland, an oncologist who’s also been director of health services in Bergen and board leader of Oslo University Hospital, won’t wait until the crisis has passed, either. “We can evaluate how things are going to a much larger degree now, rather than later,” Dr Kvinnsland said at a press conference following his appointment. “Using the opportunity now, when we’re right in the middle of (the crisis), to learn from the situation is a very good thing.”

‘Learning for the future’
Solberg has repeatedly conceded that her government has subjected Norwegians to the most invasive measures in their private lives since World War II, in order to halt the spread of the Corona virus. “Even though we’re still in a phase of high activity to fight the pandemic, we think it’s important to launch an evaluation so that we can learn from it for the future,” Solberg said. “This crisis has such widespread consequences, in all parts of our society, that we view it as absolutely necessary to have an external examination of the whole picture.”

Calls to improve preparedness continue to rise, meanwhile. Doctors and nurses have openly complained that they lacked enough protective gear, while medicinal supplies were low and hospitals were short on respirators. There’s been lots of criticism, as in other countries, over how domestic production of such gear was halted and moved abroad, mostly to China. Government officials had to scramble to acquire enough face masks for hospital crews, for example, and newspapers have editorialized that preparedness was poor because the government hadn’t listened to earlier complaints from the medical community. “This was a catastrophe that had been warned about in advance,” wrote commentator Eva Grinde in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), even before Kvinnsland was appointed. Supplies of emergency equipment were precarious at best, she wrote, and shouldn’t have been.

The key: a willingness to act, and quickly
Solberg’s government has been moving swiftly, however, to address the immediate needs of everyone from health care workers to laid-off employees and shut-down businesses that have lost their source of revenues. There’s been close cooperation between the government and Parliament, and systems have been quickly set up to deal with the consequences of Corona. While the government and Parliament have been known to quarrel for years, even decades, over whether to dip into the Oil Fund to fund various needed infrastructure projects, or even NOK 5 billion for a new frigate, they’re now raiding it for hundreds of billions to finance Corona relief measures.

It took the state immigration authority and police more than a year to develop a new online system to handle dual citizenship applications, and it promptly crashed when 1,700 clicked into it on its first day. When the government decided at the beginning of the Corona crisis to enhance unemployment benefits and offer cash support to strapped businesses, computer systems were in place to handle it all within a few weeks.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” goes the old saying, and it’s playing out every day during the Corona crisis. It takes a crisis to get things moving, and multi-partisan willingness to battle the Corona virus, at least, finally kicked into gear.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund