Iceland: Living with coronavirus

An embassy employee discusses how a small nation beat the virus

The World Today
2 minute READ

Erla Ylfa Óskarsdóttir

Political and Consular Officer, Embassy of Iceland, London

In Iceland, we usually measure things ‘per capita’; with a population of just over 360 thousand, this is often the only way in which we can compare ourselves to other countries. With just over 1800 cases of COVID-19, our number of infections per million inhabitants is higher than that of Britain. However, more COVID-19 tests have been performed than in than most other countries, or about 170,000 per million inhabitants, and the mortality rate is very low at 0.56 per cent.

Iceland never went into lockdown. Moderate but high-impact social distancing measures, guided by testing results, were taken and proved effective. The strictest measures included a ban on gatherings of more than 20 people, with shops, primary schools, and day-care centres remaining open through the pandemic albeit with restrictions on numbers. From the first confirmed case on February 29, everyone has been able to get tested, regardless of symptoms. A contact tracing team contacted every single person who had been in contact with an infected person and asked them to self-quarantine for fourteen days. As a result, more than 20,000 Icelanders have self-quarantined since the beginning of March.

At the forefront of the Icelandic government’s response was a team of three experts: The Chief Epidemiologist, the Chief Medical Officer and the Director of Civil Protection and Emergency Management at the Icelandic Police. The ‘trio’, as they came to be known among the public, updated the nation on the situation daily, acting quickly, efficiently, and calmly. Moreover, they showed a great deal of humanity and emotion when appearing before the nation; they even joined a group of famous Icelandic singers in performing a song about staying at home over Easter. Thus, the virus response was guided by science and delivered to the nation in an approachable manner.

As for me, being in London away from my family during a global pandemic has been a strange experience. In mid-March, the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs advised all Icelanders travelling abroad to consider returning home. Following the announcement, many members of our foreign service switched from their usual roles to working around the clock to help repatriate Icelandic citizens from abroad. I was lucky to play a small part in that project, answering queries online from Icelanders all around the world. When things were looking grim with numbers of infections escalating rapidly and me feeling worried about my family, it gave me solace to see how dedicated and hard-working the team was in helping Icelandic citizens return home. By the end of April, most of those who were intending on returning home had been repatriated.

At the time of writing, there are only two active COVID-19 infections in Iceland. The curve has not only been flattened; it has been more or less eliminated. In a significant easing of restrictions since May 4, gatherings of up to 200 people are allowed, swimming pools - Iceland’s most important social institutions - have been opened, as well as gyms, universities, hair salons and care homes. On June 15, Iceland is planning to ease restrictions on travel to the country by offering testing upon arrival as an alternative to quarantine. Despite the easing of restrictions, authorities remain vigilant to any signs of a second wave; the healthcare system, tracing mechanism and other essential factors remain alert.

It does feel a bit strange to watch things getting almost back to normal in Iceland when the rest of the world, including the country I currently live in, is still suffering. However, I remain grateful for the effectiveness of Iceland’s virus response and of course it gives me peace of mind knowing that my family and friends at home are safe.