Imported infection now biggest threat

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Local officials around Norway are sounding alarms over surprisingly high numbers of Norwegians who’ve been out traveling in recent weeks, and brought Corona virus infection home with them. Thousands of foreign workers and NATO soldiers are now arriving, too, prompting one doctor to call the influx “absolutely crazy.”

There’s lots of Corona testing going on in Norway right now, and lots of concern that much of the new infection is being imported from abroad. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Frederik Ringnes

More Norwegians are getting tested than ever before, “but when we pose questions, between 20- and 30 percent of them have been abroad in recent weeks,” Helge Garåsen, health and welfare director in Trondheim, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “That worries us greatly, and it’s the reason we can’t let our guard down now.”

Several Norwegian cities, not least Oslo, are reporting a rise in cases of imported infection. It’s coming from abroad in cities like Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, which all have lots of students, foreign workers and others returning from Christmas and New Year holidays. Officials in Tromsø are reporting imported Corona infection from other areas of Norway where infection levels are higher.

Norwegian labour authorities have also uncovered several cases of Norwegian employers who don’t adhere to strict infection control measures that apply to workers coming from abroad. Several now face fines for failing to ensure testing and adequate quarantine procedures. Others, meanwhile, including Aker Solutions in Verdal, have chartered their own flights for workers from abroad, arranged for their transportation from the airport and provided special quarantine housing.

4,000 arriving for ‘Lofotfisket’
Use of lower-paid workers from abroad, allowed through trade agreements with the EU and because of seasonal needs in the agriculture and seafood sectors, has always been controversial. Most employers taking advantage of imported labour provisions now don’t want to also be accused of importing infection, but alarms are still ringing over all the construction-, shipyard- and now winter fishing crews needed in Northern Norway.

Newspaper Klassekampen reported this week that around 4,000 seasonal workers from Lithuania, Poland, Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe are currently arriving for Lofotfisket, when large numbers of cod seasonally arrive in the waters around Lofoten. The labour influx is also controversial because of high unemployment among Norwegians in the area, after the Corona crisis hit the area’s tourism industry hard. “We need seasonal workers, not to save money but to be able to take in and process all the fish,” Jonas Walsøe of Berg Seafood in Svolvær told Klassekampen. Other employers cite the need for “competence and flexibility,” and admit they can’t or won’t pay “the wages Norwegian workers demand for such work.”

It’s just the latest example, however, of how various Norwegian industries have become dependent on foreign labour, even when many Norwegians need work and even when travel is frowned upon during the Corona crisis. Planeloads of strawberry pickers from Vietnam were also allowed last summer, only to be stranded when the berry season ended sooner than expected and it was difficult for them to travel home. Filipino crews were also flown in to work on board Hurtigruten cruises to Svalbard, with Hurtigruten officials later admitting they “made mistakes” when putting them to work without adequate testing and quarantine routines. That led to scandal for Hurtigruten after Corona outbreaks on board.

‘Amazed’ so many are still traveling
Garåsen and his colleagues told NRK they’re “amazed,” meanwhile, by the numbers of Norwegians themselves who’ve traveled outside Norway despite the government’s pleas that all non-essential travel be dropped. He said that of those registered as being infected while abroad, “many are folks who’ve visited family during Christmas, and Norwegians who’ve just been out on holiday.” He said local officials had the most control over the roughly 900 foreign students returning to Norway’s technical university NTNU for the spring semester.

Health officials are especially concerned about new strains of the Corona virus that are especially contagious. Testing and quarantine procedures are in place to reveal and control infection among the thousands of NATO soldiers arriving from countries including Great Britain and the US for winter exercises in Northern Norway.

That hasn’t quelled the fears of some local authorities, including Dr Hanne Heszlein-Lossius, chief medical officer in Berlevåg in Troms og Finnmark. She thinks it’s “absolutely crazy” that the government itself is letting so many people from countries with high infection rates into Norway.

“We are living in uncertain times, and there’s no reason for us to take such a risk,” Heszlein-Lossius told NRK. She thinks the annual NATO winter exercises should have been postponed because they can import infection and, not least, the new contagious strains of the virus.

Bjørnar Moxnes, a Member of Parliament for the Reds Party, agrees. “It’s ridiculous, to put it mildly, to open up for 3,000 soldiers from abroad coming to Norway,” he told NRK. Defense officials have claimed the exercises are necessary to retain preparedness especially in uncertain times.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund