How Iceland confronted the coronavirus – and whipped it

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Iceland is divided into seven healthcare districts, which correspond to the eight regions of Iceland with the exception of the northwestern and northeastern regions, which are a single healthcare district – Map: Wikipedia

The island-nation is faring better than most other countries due to its early and aggressive approach to this pandemic, Benedict Lopez writes. 

Iceland is famed for its blue lagoon, geothermal plant, geysers, horse farms and the aurora (northern lights).

Only 365,000 people live in Europe’s most sparsely populated country – fewer than many towns in Malaysia.

I visited friendly Iceland a few times, including once when the country was still reeling from the traumatic effects of the 2008 financial crisis, its economy in free fall.

Wounded after the collapse of its banking sector, Icelanders picked themselves up courageously. The country moved forward on a rough road with painful reforms to revitalise the nation’s collapsed economy. It swiftly put its agonising past behind it as its economy bounced back in the years ahead.

This time, Iceland is waging war on a different front – the fight against the coronavirus. No country, scientist or doctor has all the answers to the pandemic, which has infected over seven million people and claimed over 400,000 lives around the world. A vaccine to combat this virulent disease is nowhere in sight.

But Iceland has moved ahead of many countries in this battle. And some public health specialists working on the pandemic believe the nation is well positioned to provide information and responses on how best to curb the outbreak.

The country has sprung surprises in quickly learning how to tackle this infectious disease. It has used wide-ranging testing as a key strategy to contain the coronavirus, testing an impressive 18% of its people for Covid-19 – one of the highest rates in the world. In this way, it aims to create a more precise way of determining the extent of the spread of the coronavirus.

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The National University Hospital tests people who are at high risk or show symptoms. Nearly half of Iceland’s tests have been conducted by a well-known biopharma company. Crucially, the screening programme accepts everybody who is not showing symptoms and not currently in quarantine.

The results of all these tests suggest that efforts to limit the spread of the virus have succeeded: so far, just over 1,800 confirmed Covid-19 cases with only 10 deaths – and only a handful of new confirmed cases over the last month.  

Testing the general population will continue to produce a reliable result of the actual spread of the coronavirus in Iceland. By screening more of the general population, the nation is able to detect those in the early stages of infection before they show symptoms.

Screening is now carried out at random, but some on a voluntary basis as well. In this way, there is no bias in the data. The random screening programme has begun blood serum screening for antibodies. This work has helped researchers assess the extent of the spread of the coronavirus.

Why has Iceland not imposed a tight lockdown as in many other European and Asian countries? Icelandic officials believe that more restrictive measures are unnecessary as they are prepared and armed with data to track the coronavirus. The extent of the testing and contact tracing is a key reason for its decision not to consider a more draconian lockdown.

Iceland started testing its people at the end of January, ahead of most countries. The country’s health officials have resolutely contact-traced and quarantined confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases. It has pursued – much longer and at a higher scale than most other countries – an aggressive policy of quarantining individuals at risk of having contracted the coronavirus.

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It has also taken some precautionary measures: the island nation has banned gatherings of 20 people or more and closed secondary schools and tertiary institutions.

The head start and aggressive approach have paid off. The country is set to reopen for tourism on 15 June, ahead of many other countries. The only snag is that travellers arriving in Iceland will have to pay $113 (RM482) for Covid-19 testing to avoid a two-week quarantine. Some in the tourism industry say this fee is too high. Still, during a two-week grace period from 15 June to 29 June, the tests will be free.

Many think Iceland is doing better than other countries due to its sense of alertness to this pandemic before it became a global threat. The nation took it seriously when news of the epidemic in China flashed across the globe.

Iceland was not immune to supply shortages, and it faced problems in getting swabs for tests, but the problem has since been resolved.

Could Iceland be a model for other countries? It could help them develop models of their own to analyse the spread of the disease or assist researchers in understanding community transmission.

Sure, Iceland’s small population has been an advantage as it could easily carry out mass nationwide testing.

But the size of a country’s population may not be as important as early recognition of the problem and quick, effective proactive measures. Many developed countries, despite having well-known medical experts, remained in denial when the pandemic broke out. In contrast, Iceland bucked the trend: it acknowledged the magnitude of the pandemic immediately and confronted the problem head on.  

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The pandemic has been just another challenge, albeit a serious one, for Iceland – a challenge it faced up to brilliantly. With all the measures in place, the nation remains cautiously optimistic about life returning to normal soon.

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