Corona in the Nordic Region: Perspectives from the Faroe Islands (Elisabeth Holm)

“I hope that the Corona virus has not reached the Faroes yet”, or “Has the Coronavirus reached your islands?” These are among the common comments and questions that I have received from friends in different countries since mid-March when the world we knew was turned upside down. Yes, COVID-19 has indeed made its stormy entrance in the Faroes, bringing with it a threat to everyone’s existence. Crises that are global become local, even in the most remote parts of the world. The assumption that remote islands like the Faroes may be well protected in the North Atlantic Ocean is a myth as a precondition for life in these islands involves a high level of mobility in the form of travel for work and leisure. While the local parliament, consisting of thirty-three MPs, just recently decided not to meet face-to-face due to the risk of being infected, the same parliament allowed several airplanes a day with hundreds of passengers from abroad to land on the tiny islands. That, however, is history now. 

Source: https://www.facebook.com/atlanticairways

In the form of a harbinger who has shook the core of our human existence and assailed islanders and urban dwellers alike, have and have-nots, this global pandemic has raised salient questions in relation to local and global politics and solidarity. What its legacy will bring in terms of political priorities with regard to public health, educational leadership, social inclusion, access to resources, and to international relations, is impossible to predict. However, if local leaders and world leaders have the capacity to learn from this global crisis, they have long-awaited and important decisions and choices to make for the future. From a long list of choices, an illuminated arrow is pointing in the direction of the acute need to adopt the path of local and global solidarity.

In times of crises, the face of human solidarity comes more frequently to the surface than at other times. As such, solidarity has become a key word these days as more people have come face to face with the vulnerability of their own existence, also in the Faroe Islands. Healthcare workers, who are in the frontline fighting the Corona pandemic, have become central figures who are highly appreciated during these difficult times. Will the appreciation of their efforts be visible in nurses and healthcare workers’ paychecks in the future? Time will show when the Corona storm has passed.

Recent Corona updates

Politics aside, it has been good and reassuring to observe that health authorities were quick to take action and give advice to the public both before and after the first Corona positive case was announced in the beginning of March. From one positive case in early March, the total number of people who have tested corona positive has at the moment of writing, 28 March, reached a total of 155. Every morning, the Chief Medical Officer in the Faroes announces the number of new corona cases, whose number is based on tests from the previous day. More than three hundred persons are tested every day, which, according to www.local.fo (http://local.fo/covid-19-the-faroe-islands-conduct-the-most-tests/) is the world’s highest number of corona tests relative to the population. No one has been identified as having died from Corona yet in the islands, and only a few persons have been hospitalized. Much effort has been put on informing the public and urging people to stay at home, to take the situation seriously, to respect social distancing guidelines, and to fully comply with the guidelines from the health authorities.

In spite of the relatively high number of people who have tested Corona-positive, health authorities have simultaneously been happy to announce that so and so many persons have recovered after 48 symptomless hours, at which point they were no longer regarded as carrying the virus. However, today a new ‘bomb’ burst as new findings show that it is possible to pass on the virus even after 48 hours of showing no symptoms. The result was that the Ministry of Health sent out a press release today announcing that all corona positive persons should now go into a 14-day quarantine, and that the previous guidelines regarding 48 symptom-free hours no longer apply. So, what was perceived as being safe yesterday has proved the opposite today. Things change day by day. For more information about the corona situation in the Faroe Islands, see https://www.hmr.fo/fo/corona/hagtol/ for statistics and the Government of the Faroe Islands’ webpage: www.corona.fo

Source: www.corona.fo

Fish disease at root of successful corona testing

According to the News in English section on KVF, the national radio and television station, “The success of Faroese corona testing can be traced back 20 years when the Faroese fish farming industry was hit by the so-called salmon isavirus”. In contrast to our neighbouring countries, corona-testing in the Faroese is mainly undertaken at the test laboratory at the Food, Veterinary and Environmental Agency (HS). The equipment used in this laboratory, intended for treating fish diseases, gives the ‘HS’ more flexibility in terms of suppliers than most hospitals and laboratories have access to, thus making it easier to restock should they run out of test kits and other supplies. This innovative and pragmatic testing method has not only reached local headlines but also headlines in neighbouring countries. According to the same article, “All tests are stored and filed, allowing for subsequent research into the Covid-19 virus”, thus opening up the opportunity to use a small-scale society as a research laboratory. For more information, see: http://kvf.fo/greinar/2020/03/25/fish-disease-root-successful-corona-testing

Source: https://www.facebook.com/atlanticairways

The University of the Faroes taking lead in introducing appropriate measures

The University of the Faroe Islands, my workplace, was the first public institution to take quick initiative and wise, decisive action by getting ahead of government guidance in order to make its own institutions safe. Among a long list of preventive measures, all planned travel abroad was cancelled from 11 March. The next day, staff were asked to work remotely and immediately prepare for online teaching, meetings and other university business. In a message to staff and students from the Rector, Professor Chik Collins, he underlined that “we are taking appropriate measures which will, we hope, contribute to ensuring that the virus is controlled here on the Faroe Islands. The measures are quite strong, but they are justified entirely by the risks involved in not taking such strong measures. We must do our part to help to ensure that the virus is controlled”. In a way, things happened so fast that from one day to the next the whole working culture at the local university was turned upside down. Though not without challenges, however, so far, on the whole, with success and a strong sense of commitment and a collective spirit to deal with the demanding challenges at our hands.

Glimpses from daily life on the islands

Following the University’s decisive action for the well-being of its staff and students, the Government announced its first preventive measures on 12 March, which was the beginning of a total lockdown of the island community. Since then there have been regular press conferences with Prime Minister, Bárður á Steig Nielsen, together with the Minister of Health, the Chief Medical Officer and the Police Chief, outlining new measures in the fight against the coronavirus. Day by day new measures have been introduced, such as closing down schools, churches, restaurants, sportshalls, and other leisure spaces, eventually with serious reduction in ferry traffic between the islands and the closing down of public transport. The ultimate step, which took far too long to make a decision on, was closing down the main ‘highway’ to the outside world: airway traffic to and from the islands for leisure and other commercial purposes. All detected chains of corona infection have been traced back to holidaymakers who have returned from skiing and other types of holidays abroad.

Photo: Elisabeth Holm (August 2019)

The press conferences in question are interesting to observe from a sociolinguistic perspective as key figures are both Faroese speakers, and Danish speakers who do not appear to understand Faroese. Sign language interpreters have been present at most of these conferences, but no language support (e.g. interpreting or subtitles) has been provided for people who may have hearing challenges or, in particular, for immigrants who do not understand Faroese (and Danish). The situation with Faroese-Danish bilingual language practices, as for instance observed at regular corona-related press conferences and on news programmes, is so common that authorities have not taken into account that the islands have settlers of non-Nordic origin who may or may not understand Faroese, and who most likely neither understand Danish nor Faroese sign language. That said, both the Government’s corona webpage, and the main public service medium, KVF, provide information in English.

So far, national authorities have not introduced enforced compliance with the guidelines from the health authorities. While the police have called for stricter measure with regard to quarantine protocols, public authorities have emphasized trust in people’s compliance with quarantine orders, plus regular updates and thorough information to the general public, on the radio, on television and on social media. While social control is mostly perceived as a downside, or a curse, in a small-scale society during ‘normal’ circumstances, it may – paradoxically speaking – serve as a life-saving habit during this extraordinary situation, both in relation to keeping an extra eye on the vulnerable and elderly part of the population, and  in terms of pleading with the country’s youths to respect the social distancing guidelines.

Source: Photo taken by Anna Katrin Matras on 28 March 2020.

Social distancing: a necessity and a privilege

For most people, the world of yesterday (resonating the title of Zweig’s famous memoir from 1942) is not the world we know today, and I wonder if we will ever return to the ‘old’ world when the corona storm has calmed down or passed. In the Faroes, most people live close to nature and have easy access to free spaces in the hills and the surrounding countryside. These days, this is indeed a privilege and an advantage for people living in islands and rural areas. Though many of us are confined to shared spaces in private homes, where the boundary between one’s home life and the workplace has disappeared, we have the privilege of keeping a safe distance from others when stepping outside.

Regarding working life, face-to-face meetings have turned into online meetings, and social isolation has become the norm. When taking a daily walk in the effort to get some fresh air, exercise and hopefully catch some D-vitamins through the stingy shaft of sunlight in the far north, it is obviously notable that people’s behaviour outside has changed as well. While still receiving smiles and greetings from people when out walking, people don’t stop to have a wee chat, but walk to the other side of a path and make sure to keep a distance. While that is perfectly fine as the aim of walking is not necessarily to socialize, the new culture that is characterized by social distancing has a huge impact on life and culture in every other sphere in society. Visiting elderly family members these days is out of the question. For how long this situation will last no one knows. For example, in the Faroes it is quite common that a funeral will draw together a gathering of several hundred people who pay their respects to the deceased and those having suffered bereavement. This is part of the local culture where until the emergence of the coronavirus there was a strong social, family and community culture connected to funerals. As funerals are always announced on the public radio station, a totally new practice that has been introduced is that funerals take place in private with only the closest family attending. Only a few weeks ago, this would have been totally unheard of in villages throughout the islands and in the capital. These days, the streets of the capital, Tórshavn, are empty and the tourists are long gone, leaving many workers in the service industries unemployed. Unemployment in other sectors is on the increase too.

On a more positive note, it is notable that many people show community spirit by supporting each other, especially the vulnerable and elderly, and by adhering to guidelines from health authorities; some go voluntarily into self-isolation; traffic has reduced by far more than fifty percent; many volunteers have signed up to support healthcare workers at hospitals, nursing homes and other care institutions when health workers themselves have gone into quarantine; the local Red Cross have benefitted from an increasing number of volunteers wanting to serve those in need; musicians have excelled in bringing joy to all of us by offering online concerts for free; children, teachers and many others too have shown great potential by adapting to new circumstances, developing creative abilities, and so on and so forth. And, more importantly, being faced with the most life-threating challenge of the 21st century, many of us are facing the reality of the core of our human existence, of life and death matters, of our own mortality. In a way, the situation forces us to reflect on what we consider to be the most important values in life, including love, care, charity, moral and social responsibility. There are numerous important lessons to be learnt from this pandemic, which will hopefully lead to a shift in our priorities in life, for example with regard to the importance of the Nordic welfare state with common public goods like healthcare and access to education for all, including a positively changed attitude to and concern for the planet, mother earth and humanity.

As Faroe islanders are known for having a strong singing culture, I will end these perspectives from the Faroes by sharing the following link from last week’s nation-wide sing-along: http://local.fo/united-in-social-distancing-last-weeks-nationwide-sing-along/

Yes, the Corona virus has reached the islands with full force and is likely to leave lasting marks on local culture, life and living far into the unknown future.

Elisabeth Holm, University of the Faroe Islands, PhD student at Heriot-Watt University, Scotland

28 March 2020

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