COVID-19: Be like Norway, maybe?

“Be like Sweden” they said. “It will be fun, they said.” (Image from the Swedish course on Duolingo.com.)

Since I am still alive (surprise!), I should probably write this. It is still a time of confusion for many, and a time of uncertainty even for me. How long I shall remain in the world of forms is literally up in the air. But at least I am still alive as of writing this. And living in Norway may be a big part of that.

“Be like Sweden” say homemade banners from people who are not usually big fans of the Nordic social democracy. Social Democracy is generally grouped with Socialism among those who have no education in the field beyond hearsay and rumors. So what did Sweden do to summon forth this sudden love? It allowed a few thousand people to die for the economy, it seems.

I should make it clear that we are not talking about “Hey, we have too many old people here, let’s kill some of them off for the good of all of us, except the ones who are dead.” Nope, nothing like that. More like “Some of you are going to die, probably, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.” Obviously, with COVID-19 being a brand new disease, nobody knew for sure how many might die, but optimism prevailed. It was thought that children were immune and also could not spread the virus, and that maybe 95% of those infected never developed the disease at all, or not beyond a common cold. Hey, seriously, people believed that for a while. So much like any drunk driver, Sweden took the chance that it would probably be fine. Well, they were kind of right, in that only 5000 have died so far (officially at least) out of 10 million. Of course, those who died might have seen it in a less positive light.

My native Norway, Sweden’s smaller brother to the west, was || this close to taking the same path. But our female Prime Minister chickened out and slammed the emergency brakes. As a result Norway could open up again around the time Sweden realized that things were not really going as well as expected.

***

On March 12, the Norwegian government declared the most severe restrictions in peacetime ever. (Arguably the most severe ever, since we’ve only been in war once after our independence in 1905, and then it was the German occupation force that introduced the severity.) Schools and kindergartens were closed down, as were one-on-one services like hairdressers or physical therapy; gatherings of more than 5 people outside the household were forbidden, and travel was severely restricted even inside the country while the borders were closed almost completely. Health personnel were forbidden from leaving the country, and others who crossed the borders were required to quarantine on return.

Groceries and supermarkets were kept open and it was made clear that they would remain so. This prevented most of the hoarding seen in some other nations. Actually, my local supermarket had a sale on toilet paper at the time when lack of toilet paper was a recurring headline in many other countries. There was some extra sale of dry and canned food. (I had shopped that a month or two in advance, since it was glaringly obvious already in January that the pandemic would hit us like a giant wave.)

I had also worked from home for a while when the order came for all office workers to work from home wherever possible. Mass transit was ordered to leave every other seat marked as unavailable. Like that would be enough, as one person sneezing in a bus will reach at least half the bus if not all of it. Data so far imply that mass transit has been the main scene of transmission along with shared workspace, so sending most office workers home was probably the single most effective move, far more than some of the more draconian restrictions.

By the end of April, the first wave of the pandemic was fast receding in Norway, and society began to open up.

***

The re-opening of Norway started with kindergarten, as one could expect since it is quite rare to have stay-at-home parents here, of either gender. If you’ve ever seen pre-school children awake, you probably can imagine what having them around would do for productivity at the home office. Even grade school kids tend to get restless pretty quickly if they don’t get attention (especially if they don’t have the good luck to be born introverts). So a week after their smaller siblings, the first four grades of primary school were off to class, followed by the rest in early May.

Also in early May, gatherings of up to 20 people were allowed, or 50 for formal gatherings in public spaces. Recommended distance was lowered from 2 meters (yards) to 1.

In May, the rapid fall in new infections stopped and the disease stabilized on a very low level, typically 10-20 new cases registered per day, in a population of 5 million. For some reason everyone seems happy with having rolled the boulder almost to the top of the hill and leaving it there, ready to roll all the way back down again, rather than end the threat more definitely. One reason for that can be seen by looking over the border to the east: Neighboring Sweden still had a raging epidemic, even though the top of the first wave had been passed even there. The top was far higher though, and the decline slower. Eradicating the disease in Norway was perhaps pointless if anyone sneaking across the border could set it off again from the start.

***

It is now late June, and contrary to my expectations, we have not had a second wave. The number of infections has increased marginally, occasionally rising above 30 new cases per day. We also know that there are some unregistered cases, because we get new patients who have no idea where they were infected. There are probably some asymptomatic carriers, or people with so mild symptoms that they can’t be bothered to get tested, as well as people who avoid health personnel or anything resembling government for personal reasons. The testing capacity is far, far higher than needed, although there are occasionally unnecessary wait times for results. Mostly just a couple days though.

Norwegians have been encouraged to vacation in Norway, meaning evidently that they are supposed to travel to other parts of Norway on vacation instead of staying at home as would be the sane thing to do. Now they are going to throng together at the popular tourist spots (one of which is right here where I live) and we can expect local outbreaks.

***

Speaking of local outbreaks, one reason the topic came to mind again was that a shop worker sneezed right by me this past Friday. Nobody here wears face masks – by ancient tradition, only criminals wear masks outside certain parts of hospitals – so now I’m waiting to see whether I got COVID-19 or not. A bit of excitement in everyday life, since I’m in a couple risk groups. That said, there’s been like 1 registered case in this province so far in June, so if I get COVID-19 from this episode I think we’ll have to chalk it up to Divine intervention. Which admittedly seems to play a pretty big role in my life, looking back on it, but usually for the better. Starting with the amazingly great fortune of being born into Norwegian citizenship, which is already like winning a lottery.

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