How Iceland Beat the Coronavirus – The New Yorker

Posted: June 2, 2020 at 11:42 pm

Mller pulled up a series of graphs and charts on her laptop. These showed that, per capita, Iceland had had more COVID-19 cases than any other Scandinavian country, and more than even Italy or Britain. There was an outbreak in a nursing home in the town of Bolungarvk, in northwestern Iceland, and one in the Westman Islands, an archipelago off the southern coast, which seemed to have started at a handball game. (In Europe, handball is a team sport thats sort of a cross between basketball and soccer.)

The numbers in the beginning were terrible, Mller said. She attributed the countrys success in bringing the caseload down in part to having got an early start. The trio, along with officials from Icelands university hospital, had begun meeting back in January. We saw what was going on in China, she recalled. We saw the pictures of people lying dead in emergency departments, even on the street. So it was obvious that something terrible was happening. And, of course, we didnt know if it would spread to other countries. But we didnt dare take the chance. So we started preparing. For example, it was discovered that the country didnt have enough protective gear for its health-care workers, so hospital officials immediately set about buying more.

Meanwhile, Mller began assembling a backup team. You know, everybody knows everyone in Iceland, she said. And so I rang up the president of the Icelandic Medical Association and the head of the nurses association. Doctors who had recently retired, nurses who had gone on to other jobsall were urged to sign up. When new cases started to be diagnosed in a great rush, the backup team, along with doctors whose offices had been shut by the pandemic, counselled people over the phone. If you were seventy, if you had high blood pressure, you got called every day, Mller told me. But, if you were young and healthy, maybe twice a week. And Im sure that this led to fewer hospital admittances and even to fewer intensive-care admittances.

This, in turn, appears to have cut down on fatalities. Icelands death rate from COVID-19 is one out of every one hundred and eighty confirmed cases, or just 0.56 per centone of the lowest in the world. The figure is so low that it raised some doubts. Mllers department decided to look into how many Icelanders had perished for any reason since the outbreak began. It turned out that over-all mortality in Iceland had actually gone down since the coronavirus had arrived.

I asked Mller about masks. In Massachusetts, an executive order issued by the governor requires that masks be worn by anyone entering a store, taking a cab, or using public transit, and violators can be fined up to three hundred dollars. In Iceland, masks arent even part of the public conversation. Mller said that wearing one might be advisable for a person who is sick and coughing, but that person shouldnt be walking around in public anyway. We think they dont add much and they can give a false sense of security, she said. Also, masks work for some time, and then they get wet, and they dont work anymore.

Mller was careful not to suggest that Iceland had beaten the virus. She seemed almost embarrassed by the idea of claiming credit for herself, for the trio, or for Iceland. The furthest she would go, when pressed, was to say, We are a nation thats used to catastrophes. We deal with avalanches, earthquakes, eruptions, and so on. Among the slides she showed me about the countrys experience with COVID was one labelled Success?

Iceland was one of the last (more or less) habitable places on earth to be settled by humans, sometime toward the end of the ninth century. Genetic analysis performed by deCODE shows that the islands original inhabitants were mainly men from Norway and women from the British Isles. (It seems likely that the women were seized by the Vikings and brought along by force.)

For centuries, hardly anyone from anywhere else bothered to travel to Iceland; it just didnt seem worth the effort. Isolation, combined with low population density, tended to keep out epidemicsthe island was, for example, spared the Black Death. But, when disease did slip in, the effects on a population that lacked immunity could be devastating. In 1707, an Icelander contracted smallpox during a trip to Copenhagen. He died on his way home and was buried at sea. His clothes continued on to the town of Eyrarbakki, on the islands southern coast, sparking an outbreak that, by 1709, had killed about a quarter of the country.

Today, Iceland is still far from anywhere. Its nearest neighbor, Greenland, is mostly ice, and the capital city of Nuuk is almost nine hundred miles away. But jets and cruise ships have turned Reykjavk into a bucket-list destination; last year, almost two million foreign tourists visited, four times the number that visited just a decade ago. Icelands first COVID casualty was, perhaps not surprisingly, a vacationer. The man, whose name was not released, was Australian. He died on March 16th, shortly after arriving at a medical clinic in Hsavk, a small town on the northern coast known for whale-watching. His widow, who also tested positive, was ordered into isolation, a development that prompted an outpouring of sympathy from Icelanders. A woman named Rakel Jnsdttir set up a Facebook group, With Love from Us, so that people could post messages to her; more than ten thousand people joined. You may not see us, you may not know us, but we all think of you and have you in our hearts, Jnsdttir wrote.

Icelanders, too, are big travellers: in 2018, more than eighty per cent of them vacationed abroad. I spoke to several people in Reykjavk whod brought the virus home from overseas. One was Brkur Arnarson, an art dealer. I went to speak to him at his gallery, i8, which was closed to the public at the time. (Rule 4b: Only those being interviewed should have direct interaction with the journalist.)

Arnarson, who represents, among others, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, had been in New York, attending the Armory Show, at the beginning of March. After the show ended, hed gone to a crowded party where finger food was served. Im not a news guy, he told me. But I knew what was going on here in Iceland, and I knew what was going on in Europe. And I was struck by how New Yorkers were so confident. They didnt believe it was going to happen, or, if it was going to happen, somehow it was going to be O.K.

Arnarson started to feel crappy almost as soon as he got home. His daughter signed the family up for COVID tests that were being offered by deCODE; when his came back positive, Arnarson went into isolation in a studio loaned to him by an artist friend. Every day, someone on the team of nurses and doctors phoned him. They asked, How are you doing? What are your symptoms? Are you getting all the help you need? he recalled. And that was really amazing. It was so comforting, knowing that they were doing this. He was given a number to call in case of an emergency: I dont think they were getting many calls, because they were so proactive. While he was in isolation, his wife and his daughter, whod originally tested negative for the virus, came down with it. They received the same treatment. None of them ended up going to the hospital or to a clinic.

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How Iceland Beat the Coronavirus - The New Yorker

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