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Monday, July 15, 2024

Corona times won’t be entirely missed

NEWS ANALYSIS: Not everyone was thrilled by the prospect of a fully re-opened Norway after 18 months of pandemic-related restrictions. Some still fear the threat of infection, while others hail unexpected benefits of the Corona crisis and how it changed Norwegian society.

Lots of people actually liked the quiet streets when the Corona crisis kept most everyone at home. PHOTO: Møst

Whoever thought it would be possible to stay at their beloved hytte (holiday home) and still be able to do a normal day’s work, in between skiing or hiking? Or to work from home, often at hours workers could set themselves, and save all the time spent commuting ? Digitalization of Norwegian society was already well underway, but accelerated to a dizzying pace during the Corona crisis.

Now many Norwegians want to continue working from home, or from their hytter, and many employers are willing to accommodate them, not least with an eye to how much they can save on leasing office space.

Then came an overall easing of various forms of stress in society. Suddenly it wasn’t possible or even expected to have a packed social or work calendar. People had more freedom and time to work on long-delayed projects around the house, read a book or even just clean closets. Families found themselves spending lots more time together, for better or worse. Loners, meanwhile, could finally thrive when they wanted to be alone. Suddenly everyone was.

“It was our time to shine,” Aslak Harbert, a composer, author and rapper, wrote in newspaper Morgenbladet. He was referring to “those of us who enjoy being alone, who think hugging is uncomfortable and feel that others drain energy out of us who like staying home.” Suddenly, Harbert noted, “it was as if the world was created just for us. Home office? Perfect. An end to parties, obligatory gatherings and social events? Super. Meetings on Skype and Zoom? Heaven on earth, for everyone who dreads all the small talk before meetings.”

Newspaper Aftenposten reported last week, just before Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced an end to most Corona restrictions from Saturday, that there were far fewer heart attacks in Norway during the first three months of the pandemic from March to June 2020. Deaths from heart attacks hadn’t been so low since 1970, according to new figures from the state public health institute FHI. It sees a connection to the pandemic, with less daily stress anxiety for many and better hygiene.

While the pandemic was hard on many businesses, especially the travel and hospitality industries, others literally blossomed. Home delivery of groceries and restaurant meals took off, creating new jobs and possibly new lasting consumer habits. Home remodelling exploded, and business boomed at building supply centers, gardeners, interior decorating firms and, surprisingly, the real estate market. Both the housing and holiday home sectors skyrocketed, even amidst a period of massive layoffs, job uncertainty and restrictions on showing properties. Prices for both homes and hytter rose by double digits from 2019 to 2020 and again to 2021. Since folks were stuck at home, they wanted a nice home. Many also found themselves saving lots of money, since they weren’t heading off on fancy holidays, eating out or going shopping.

Few countries in the world, meanwhile, were better able to tackle the Corona crisis than Norway. Armed with a huge sovereign wealth fund, the government could quickly guarantee and pay out unemployment benefits for those laid off, offer stimulus packages for businesses and compensation for those shut down. An additional NOK 300 billion was pumped into the economy during the first year of the Corona crisis, without creating any national debt, and Norwegians could be assured by a wide net of social welfare benefits. Most were fairly confident that Norwegians would pull through the Corona crisis and the vast majority did.

The climate stood to reap perhaps the biggest benefits of grounded airline flights, a lack of traffic congestion and all the other effects of reduced mobility. Carbon admissions from the transport sector fell by as much as 40 percent just during the first week of the Corona crisis in Norway in March 2020. Emissions from airline emissions in Norway alone fell by 42,000 tons from March 13, 2020 (the day after Corona shut Norway down) until March 20, 2020, according to the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). By May of last year, emissions had also taken a dive because of vastly reduced traffic on the highways and in the transport sector as a whole.

Hopes by some climate-friendly political parties that the Corona crisis would usher in the long-awaited “green shift” have not been met, though. The Socialist Left party (SV), for example, wanted to use both Corona crisis and last year’s fall in oil prices to quickly restructure the economy away from oil. That hasn’t happened, and none of Norway’s largest political parties want to phase out oil any time soon.

As flights start taking off again, and more people return to commuting into an office, many of Corona’s climate effects can evaporate quickly. Others point to perhaps the most important positive effect of Corona: solidarity in a crisis. Rival political parties, business organizations and labour organizations, even neighbours who otherwise didn’t have much to do with one another, suddenly pulled together. Economic aid packages were pulled together quickly, state loan guarantees were granted. As oil prices plunged, the government reacted quickly. The Corona crisis put Norwegians’ spirit of dugnad (pulling together for a common goal) to the test, and most agree they passed.

Now, as what Prime Minister Solberg calls “everyday life” gets back to “normal,”  many are cheering while others are dubious. Carbon emissions are now likely to start rising quickly again, with the climate crisis raging on. Fears of mass bankruptcies never materialized and for many companies it will now be business as usual, albeit with more people still allowed to work from home.  Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Sunday on the fears of people with poor immune systems who now fear they’ll get sick after all when everyone else drops their guard.

“It provokes me,” Synnøve Stenvåg from Eidsdal in Sunnmøre told NRK. “People are already living like we never even went through a pandemic. It may sound egotistical, but that’s what I fear the most.” For Stenvåg and many others, a more protected life under the Corona crisis will be missed. Berglund



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