‘Quarantine for southerners’: How Norway’s Covid-19 epidemic has exposed regional friction

'Quarantine for southerners': How Norway's Covid-19 epidemic has exposed regional friction
Photo: Angela Compagnone/Unsplash
The Covid-19 epidemic has not hit all regions of Norway with the same force and this has led to tensions around vaccine doses, the overall strategy and travel within the country that has even led to calls for "quarantine for southerners."

Since the beginning of the pandemic the southern part of Norway has borne the brunt of infection rates, hospital admissions and deaths, while the northern part of the country has been largely spared.

This has provoked certain regional tensions around the government’s strategy in dealing with the virus. Why should restaurants in northern Norway be subject to the same alcohol ban as the south, people have asked.

But now there are also regional frictions over access to vaccines and growing calls for internal travel restrictions to be placed on those living in the south of the country, which has been hit by outbreaks of the new more contagious variant of the virus.

Here’s a look at the issues fuelling the divide.

The battle for the vaccine

The demand for the coronavirus vaccine has never been higher.

Norway is currently employing a strategy of even distribution, where the 40,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are allocated to the 356 municipalities based on their number of residents.

But this plan has come under fire after the outbreak of the more infectious B117 variant in the Nordre Follo municipality , south of Oslo, where officials have asked for their areas to jump the vaccine queue alongside other hard-hit areas such as Bergen and Oslo. 

The head of the Oslo city council, Raymond Johansen, has argued it would be more efficient to prioritise vaccinations where there is a higher transmission rate, and said that the current strategy is faulty.

“If the pandemic has taught us one thing it is that it’s not geographically evenly distributed,” he told newspaper VG.

“Every third case of infection is in Oslo, and we have had the strictest and most intrusive measures since March. I do not necessarily think a person in a municipality with little to no infection will think it’s particularly unfair that a person in an area of high transmission moves a bit further up the queue,” he said.

Yet elected officials across the country disagree, arguing it would be an unfair prioritisation of those in populated areas and cities.

Mayor of Namsskogan municipality in the central region of Trøndelag, Stian Brekkvassmo, says that although he understands the impatience of municipalities like Nordre Follo in getting their residents vaccinated, there is no health reasons for why it would be better fight the pandemic with such measures.

“Citizens are just as valuable irregardless of where they live, and in such a serious pandemic we must rely on the recommendations from our health authorities,” he said to VG.

READ ALSO: Nine charts and maps that reveal the state of the epidemic in Norway

His argument was backed by the mayor of the Tysnes municipality in south west Vestland, who is happy with the current strategy from the government.

“The current strategy gives us the opportunity to start vaccinating vulnerable people and critical health personnel,” said Kåre Martin Kleppe.

“This means that we are stronger in the event of an outbreak and that our vaccinated residents are safer in such a situation. It also gives us experience in administering the vaccine, which will be handy when we receive more doses,” he told the newspaper.

Quarantine for ‘Southerners’

When Norway encountered its first cases of coronavirus and closed down in March last year, counties in the north of the country such as Nordland,Troms and Finnmark, were quick to insist on a so-called ‘southerner quarantine’ for travellers from other parts of the country.

This meant that all travellers arriving from counties south of Nordland would be asked to self isolater for two weeks. However, in early April the border was set closer to Trøndelag, 429 kilometres south of Nordland.

In May all Northern counties had less than three new cases each, while Oslo had 2,400 cases.

The practice was ended in late April, but after the outbreak of the more infectious B117 variant in Nordre Follo earlier this month, 43 mayors in northern Norway took a vote on whether to reinforce quarantine requirements for southerners. The result of the vote was fairly evenly split but opinions are divided.

“The municipality’s crisis management follows what is happening in the south, and new quarantine measures for southerners could be relevant if the situation worsens,” mayor of Karasjok, Svein Atle Somby told news wire NTB.

Health Minister Bent Høie said the government does not recommend local authorities implement their own quarantine rules. 

Meanwhile, not everyone in the north backs the idea of travel restrictions for those in the south, not least because the local economy is already suffering.

In January, the north of Norway usually has the highest number of hotel stays in the country, marking its peak season for those seeking to view the Northern Lights. A new quarantine restriction on those from the south would have serious implications for businesses given the national borders are already closed and no foreign visitor can travel to the region for the foreseeable future.

Erlend Svardal Bøe, a lawmaker from northern city Tromsø, told newspaper Dagbladet that he rejected any animosity between regions of Norway.

“I think things are getting stupid when I read comments on Facebook about the ‘bloody Southerners’ and southerner quarantine. No one likes getting crap thrown at them, and there will hopefully be a time after this pandemic when we will work on political issues and get back on our feet. There is no point in us being undignified in the situation we are in,” he said.

Local economies and national restrictions

The reality is that since the beginning the pandemic Norway’s strategy of implementing strict closures hasn’t always been widely accepted across the country.

When alcohol sales were banned earlier this month (before being lifted) the popular pub Jernbanestasjonen in northern Tromsø, was one of those forced to close.

Yet Tromsø had registered no local infections in weeks. Harry Granås, the owner of the pub said the decision regarding alcohol sales should have been made locally.

“We have skilled local people, and I am sure that if there was to be a rise in infections we would have to close. But this is not fair. This is our peak season,” he told TV2. 

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in March last year multiple businesses in Tromsø have closed down. The local economy has been hit by the 90 percent drop in the number of travellers on trips to see the northern lights.

Other towns are just as affected. Hemsedal, which is home to one of Norway’s largest ski resorts, currently has the one of the highest unemployment rates in the country with an increase of 492% since December 2019.

Last year when they were forced to shut the ski centre before the peak Easter season, the estimated losses were around 500 million kroner in revenue.

Some in the ski industry have accused the government of being unsympathetic to their plight.

Given many small towns and villages across Norway depend on visitors, the various travel restrictions have hit them the hardest despite their cases being significantly lower than the big cities of Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim.


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