Bent Høie became a calm and reassuring presence during the Corona crisis, turning up daily on radio and TV to gently but firmly urge Norwegians to follow his health ministry’s instructions. Behind the scenes things were anything but calm, and now Norway’s former health minister has written a book about it.
“In reality, the health minister felt more unease than he ever had,” writes his publisher, Gyldendal, in its own promotion of the book co-written with Jorunn Litland. The new book’s title even centers on that unease, URO i koronaens tid (Unease in the time of Corona), and it’s due out next week.
Høie, long a top politician for the Conservative Party, now serves as county governor back home in Rogaland on Norway’s west coast. it’s taken a while to digest what he and his fellow government colleagues went through from the time the Corona virus first emerged as a potential threat in early 2020 and then forced them to impose the most invasive measures on Norwegians since World War II.
Høie felt a need to describe what it was like to be part of the efforts to lead Norway through the crisis for the next 18 months. He describes the fears he and his colleagues felt over whether they shut down the country too late, about their “intense hunt” for infection prevention materials and, not least, vaccine. He reveals how scared he was that he and other colleagues would break down themselves, and his uncertainty over whether the calm exteriors of both him and former Prime Minister Erna Solberg were in fact the best approach.
“In the beginning, there were two things that made me extra uneasy: whether our measures came quickly enough and whether they were adequate,” Høie told newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this summer, while still working on the book. The days leading up to Solberg’s historic press conference on March 12, 2020 were full of uncertainy, and then came the pressing need for protective gear, hospital space and vaccine. The latter ended up being provided by the EU, with neighbouring Sweden playing a major role on behalf of Norway since Norway is not an EU member.
His own feared “breakdown” came later, he said. “We realized the crisis would last a long time, and I could see many of my colleagues either giving up or being shoved out,” Høie said. “I felt an enormous sense of responsibility on my shoulders. I got lots of feedback from folks that the calm exterior I portrayed meant a lot for the entire population’s reassurance. I was worried what would happen if I didn’t manage to hold out over time.”
He thanks his partner for providing the most support, “and I got very good help from colleagues and co-workers,” he said. “That was most important.”
Solberg, Høie and the rest of the government won kudos for how they managed the crisis, and Norway ended up faring unusually well with relatively few deaths per capita. The hospital system withstood the pressure on it and most Norwegians expressed confidence in the government and in state health administrators, and obeyed the rules. A state commission also concluded that the government managed to strike a balance between protecting the most vulnerable among the public and people’s life and health without imposing the strictest of measures.
“The economy also recovered quickly,” Høie said, and remains robust despite the going right into another crisis: Russia’s war on Ukraine. That’s actually fueling Norway’s economy quite literally, because of the huge price hikes for oil and gas.
Solberg’s government nonetheless lost the election last fall, sparking comments about how Winston Churchill also lost the election after leading Britain through World War II and emerging victorious. Høie already had his new job as a county governor lined up, but the loss hurt.
Asked whether there was anything he thinks he should have differently, Høie said the burden on children and youth was too heavy. Other experts have also said that schools shouldn’t have been closed for so long, depriving children of both better learning and social interaction with their friends. He and other officials have also regretted their ban on visiting holiday homes during the first Corona Easter, and new bans were not put in place.
“It was important to also maintain a sense of humour,” said Høie, who became known for brandishing a yard stick when explaining the distance people needed to keep from one another. “You should never take yourself too seriously,” Høie told Dagsavisen, even in serious situations.
He claims he didn’t mind having to answer the same questions again and again, and stresses it was important to explain the reasons for unpopular measures.
Now, Høie notes, the vast majority of Norwegians are protected by the vaccinations administered by local programs that mostly functioned well. There’s still infection among Norwegians, but the consequences of getting sick with new variants of the Corona virus aren’t nearly as serious as they were two years ago. New waves of infection can also occur.
“We still have to be prepared that things can change,” said Høie, who’s not the only one writing books about the Corona crisis and how it was handled. He insists he’s not on the defensive, only that he wanted to offer his version of a crisis from which many are still recovering.