Health Minister Bent Høie joked in Parliament recently about how the government is trying to enforce Norway’s Corona virus containment measures. The restrictions are still mild compared to many other countries, but Høie now faces serious challenges in maintaining public support for them.
He wasn’t smiling at all after around 150 people demonstrated in front of Parliament on Sunday, publicly protesting Norway’s Corona rules for the first time in an organized manner. It was the latest sign that Norwegian solidarity in controlling the virus is starting to crack after eight months of limits on personal freedom.
“We want to expose incorrect information that the public has been served through media that’s clearly being used as part of a political ploy on the part of governing powers,” stated Nader Eide, one of the organizers of Sunday’s demonstration, on social media before it began. He had hoped to gather at least 1,000 people to spread the message that anti-infection measures are too invasive given the actual numbers of people who are infected, and who have died.
Far fewer heeded the call, but Eide was undaunted, telling the Norwegian website faktisk.no that the main goal “was to get as many people as possible to wake up.”
There have been other calls for a reassessment of Corona rules since Prime Minister Erna Solberg basically shut down the country in March. Restrictions began being eased as early as late April, and by May schools, restaurants, hair salons, training studios, dentists and most other service-oriented businesses had reopened. Public gatherings remain limited to no more than 200 people, less in some situations, however, and recent recurring outbreaks of the virus have also prompted rule-tightening. Borders that briefly reopened have closed to everyone not agreeing to quarantine restrictions and on Friday, Solberg warned of stricter and more-targeted anti-infection measures to be announced later this week.
Skepticism spreads, along with infection
Now more people are speaking up against them, after months of being loyal to what Norwegians call a dugnad (collective effort) to stop the spread of the Corona virus. Among them is Elisabeth Swensen, a doctor who also writes an occasional column in newspaper Klassekampen.
Swensen, age 69 herself, noted how the death rate from Covid-19 has been falling in all age groups. Even though many more people are infected now than last spring, few become seriously ill. “I don’t like conspiracy theories,” Swensen wrote, stressing that she has distanced herself from any campaigns against Norwegian health authorities, but she doesn’t understand why Solberg and Høie are so worried when hospitalization and death rates remain low.
She has also pointed out how some of the anti-Corona measures have made things worse for many, in terms of job losses, high unemployment, domestic violence, loneliness and all the restrictions on sporting and cultural events, travel and the socializing that makes life worth living. Not only the elderly are suffering anxiety and depression after being isolated from others for more than half a year, Swensen notes. “Not much provokes me more than hearing people of my own age, who literally have traveled first-class in recent years, downplay the economic, strategic and social costs the pandemic has for those coming after us,” Swensen wrote in Klassekampen earlier this month. “My generation should take a larger share of the risk and responsibility for a more open society, but we not challenged or invited to do so.”
More debate urged
Norway’s public health institute FHI has called for more debate over what anti-infection measures can best get Norway through the Corona winter ahead. Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, who leads FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet), thinks more debate over the effectiveness of various measure is important “because we live in a democracy. We rely on participation from everyone in order for the measures to work, especially for those that aren’t so invasive. They leave a lot up to the individual’s judgment.”
Meanwhile, however, infection numbers have been soaring in Norway and that’s alarmed both Health Minister Høie, Prime Minister Solberg and, not least, the head of Oslo’s city government, Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party. He’s learning towards much more restrictive measures than the state, and has criticized Solberg’s Conservatives-led government for not going far enough.
Both Johansen and Solberg were due to unveil revised restrictions this week, all aimed at maintaining control over the spread of infection until a vaccine becomes available. Solberg wants families to at least be able to enjoy traditional Christmas gatherings in December. She may be encouraged, in the meantime, by a recent survey showing that fully 62 percent of those questioned over all age groups want to tone down looming Halloween celebrations.
Editorial support for strict measures
Editorials over the weekend in newspapers Aftenposten and Dagsavisen, which represent both right- and left-leaning policies respectively, both supported Solberg’s effort to tighten restrictions.
“Solberg is trying to reawaken the many who are tired of the Corona rules,” wrote Aftenposten. “Eight months with limited social contact, few cultural experiences, home offices and no travel have left many less sharp about infection control measures.” It’s also shown just how fortunate and relatively care-free most Norwegians were before the Corona crisis began.
What’s more important than going to a party now, Aftenposten wrote, is to hinder that a new wave of infection threatens health care capacity and sends the economy into further decline.
“Norwegians must expect and accept stricter measures,” editorialized Dagsavisen. “We must meet them with solidarity … winter is coming and we must stand together, like we always have done. We encourage listening to and following up on the advice we get from the health authroties, and that we hammer into ourselves the fundamental rules: Keep your distance and wash your hands.”