Island is Europe’s answer to New Zealand, and recently it’s not just because of its green landscapes and natural wonders. Like New Zealanders on the other side of the earth, Icelanders have come to grips with the coronavirus pandemic more than few other countries.
The fact that the Viking people, with their low number of new infections, is currently the undisputed best of their class in Europe, is partly due to the isolated situation – as is the case with the Kiwis in Down Under – but also to a stringent strategy.
“Our fight against the pandemic went better than we might have expected,” said Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir of the German press agency. The Icelandic route with comprehensive corona tests and test results within a few hours, consistent contact tracing and strict quarantine and isolation rules may have shown better results than the strict measures in other countries.
“That is the key to our success: the easy access to tests for people, the tracking of infections and the scientific approach,” says the head of government.
This strategy is reflected in extremely low numbers of new infections. After peaking in mid-October, the values fell rapidly. Apart from a few positive tests with travelers after their arrival, Iceland had recently experienced six days in a row without a domestic Corona case.
With just 6.59 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the first two weeks of February, Iceland is unmatched in the comparative figures of the EU health authority ECDC. Even the other Northern Europeans Norway (66), Finland (88) and Denmark (100) – behind Iceland, the countries with the lowest numbers in the European Economic Area – are many times higher. Iceland’s coronavirus-related deaths in the period: zero.
What advantages Iceland enjoys
Now it can be said that Iceland, with its isolated location in the North Atlantic, has a clear advantage and can only be compared with larger countries to a limited extent – after all, the island has only 360,000 inhabitants and thus about as many as Bochum or Wuppertal. The success is based not only on the location and size of the country, but also on the strict procedure, tests, contact tracing and the high degree of trust of the population in their experts.
It goes without saying that border controls are much easier for Iceland than for others: Germany borders on nine countries and has several international airports; Iceland can be reached almost exclusively via Keflavik Airport near Reykjavik. Anyone entering the country has had to present a negative PCR test no longer than 72 hours since Friday. There is also a corona test on arrival, five to six days of quarantine and another test after the quarantine period.
The quarantine is already an important component of the Icelandic corona strategy: Without exception, everyone who has had contact with an infected person has to endure it. For comparison: So far, around 6,000 people in Iceland have tested positive for the corona virus – but just under 46,000 were temporarily in quarantine.
And then there is the trust in the experts. Chief epidemiologist Thórólfur Gudnason, civil defense chief Vidir Reynisson and health director Alma Möller are often referred to as the “Trinity” – and despite the strict restrictions on public life, most Icelanders have followed their guidelines.
Fitness studios are open, small concerts are allowed
For this they were rewarded with certain relaxations: bars were allowed to reopen this month, training in the gym is allowed again. The maximum number of visitors to cinemas, theaters, museums, concerts and religious events has been increased from 100 to 150.
Despite the good situation, epidemiologist Gudnason emphasizes that further loosening must take place slowly and carefully. “I don’t think the virus went away in Iceland. I’m worried that it might be hiding somewhere, ”he said at a press conference on Thursday. He initially left open what the further easing would look like. Just this: “The last thing I will recommend is that people take their mask off.”
The entry requirements are meanwhile a means for Iceland to achieve an important balancing act for the tourism industry: to let vacationers back into the country, but not new drivers of infection. One step in this direction is that travelers can free themselves from testing and quarantine if they can prove a corona infection or vaccination against Covid-19.
The tourism sector, which is so important for Iceland, experienced a drastic slump in 2020: the number of foreign holidaymakers fell by 76 percent to below 500,000. Will things look up again in 2021? “In the long run, I’m optimistic. We expect a certain number of tourists, but we don’t know whether that will happen, ”says Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir. Ultimately, it depends on how fast the vaccinations are going in Iceland and in other countries.
A new entry system is now planned from May 1 that could free travelers from countries with a lower risk of infection from quarantine. The industry understands that tourism in Iceland cannot continue without restrictions from now on. “It’s not about ‘the sooner the better’”, says the head of the state tourism authority Visit Iceland, Sigrídur Dögg Gudmundsdóttir. “It’s about ‘The safer the better’.”