Politics start to infect Corona fight

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway had mostly managed to escape political conflicts over Corona restrictions, until this week. Suddenly, the Labour Party’s leader of Oslo’s city government didn’t like being told what to do by state health officials, and when the Conservative Party’s health minister intervened, temperatures spiked.

Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, announcing some, but not all, of the state’s recommended Corona containment measures at Monday evening’s press conference. PHOTO: Oslo kommune

A standoff between Oslo city government leader Raymond Johansen and the state government’s usually affable Health Minister Bent Høie shattered the relative harmony that has otherwise characterized Norway’s approach to the Corona crisis. State government leaders have won public praise for keeping the Corona virus mostly under control, and there’s been remarkable cooperation with leaders at the local government level. Public confidence through it all has generally been high.

Complaints have, not surprisingly, been rising over Corona restrictions that have hit the travel, restaurant and entertainment industries hard. Lots of other Norwegians are growing weary of the constant Corona warnings, even though daily life without face masks and with bars and restaurants reopened has clearly been much better than in many other countries. Young Norwegians, meanwhile, have reacted with excessive partying in recent months that’s now widely blamed for much of the sharp increase in Covid-19 infection levels since August.

It’s those rising infection levels that have alarmed state health officials, and prompted them to issue stricter recommendations that Health Minister Høie expects local officials to follow. When Oslo’s Johansen failed to do so, despite outbreaks all over the city that brought confirmed cases of Covid-19 to as high as 144 per 100,000 residents in some city neighborhoods, Høie tried to crack down.

“I’m extremely worried,” Høie said over the weekend, stressing how he expected Johansen’s city government to follow the new list of measures imposed by the state health officials. They included mandatory use of face masks on public transportation, much stricter limits on social gatherings indoors and even a ban on entry to bars and restaurants after 10pm. Johansen’s Labour Party-colleague who leads Bergen’s city government had quickly imposed the state’s tougher measures when an outbreak hit his west coast city earlier this month, and Høie expected Johansen to do the same.

Johansen refused, opting instead, for example, to simply keep appealing to Oslo residents to follow face-mask recommendations, and to refrain from excessive partying. Even though there were few signs that residents were listening to Johansen, he wanted to postpone implementation of the state health officials’ recommended rules until new statistics were available after the weekend.

Health Minister Bent Høie, showing just how far people need to stay apart during the Corona crisis. PHOTO: Helse departementet

By Sunday, Høie had run out of patience, and glaring conflicts emerged publicly between the Conservatives-led state government and Johansen’s Labour-led city government. Commentator Bent Gravklev in newspaper Dagsavisen equated it to the biggest mistakes made by parents in rearing their children: Johansen had first threatened Oslo residents with tougher rules if they didn’t shape up themselves, and when his residents ignored him, he faced losing control. Then Høie resorted to threatening Johansen by overriding him with state-mandated Corona rules. Johansen flared instantly, claiming at a press conference Monday evening that “I think the health minister has gone too far.” Loyalty between what Gravklev likened to two parent-figures seemed to have come to an abrupt halt, and Norway’s first official conflict over Corona measures was laid bare. “Who should we listen to? Raymond or Bent?” asked Gravklev rhetorically in her Dagsavisen column on Tuesday.

In the end, Johansen backed down and agreed to impose several, if not all, of the state health officials’ recommendations after all. Høie quickly claimed he was satisfied, especially over mandatory use of face masks on public transportation, and that he hoped Oslo officials would manage to bring down the capital’s infection levels like Johansen’s colleague in Bergen managed to do.

A need to be strict
Commentator Joacim Lund in newspaper Aftenposten wrote on Tuesday that Høie needed to be strict, after Oslo’s infection levels became alarmingly high. State health director Dr Bjørn Gulvog has stressed it was crucial for Oslo to crack down now, in order for the city to remain relatively open this fall and winter. Bergen, Sarpsborg and Fredrikstad had followed Gulvog’s department’s recommendations and he was clearly startled that Oslo’s leader had not.

Johansen is known for being short-tempered and stubborn at times. The head of Norway’s national editors’ association (Norsk Redaktørforening) even compared Johansen to US President Donald Trump after Johansen called state broadcaster NRK’s critical reports about his city government’s secrecy “pure lies,” just because Johansen allegedly didn’t accept the premise of the reports. “That was like an echo of Trump’s tactics in opposing journalism he doesn’t like,” wrote Arne Jensen in a commentary of his own on Tuesday. Lund further noted that Johansen had all but downplayed the infection numbers that were coming in over the past week, claiming they’d gone down when the trend was still rising.

The compromise struck Monday night between Johansen and Høie led to some sighs of relief, but Gravklev worries that politics are now creeping into the Corona battle in Norway. She noted how there are lots of quarrels now over Corona expenses, testing and restrictions. “The split we’ve seen between the state government and the city government in Oslo may only have been expected prior to (next autumn’s) election,” she wrote, “and it may just get worse because Corona has become politics.”

She warned, however, that such a split can be destructive. “When we know the consequences of a lockdown, we don’t want another one,” Gravklev wrote. “Mutual confidence and unity must be nurtured, and Raymond and Bent must agree more often as we move forward.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund