In recent weeks, Iceland has emerged from its distant North Atlantic environs to become of one of the headliners in the battle against Covid-19. Experts have dubbed it the “perfect laboratory” to study the virus.
Adjacent to the Arctic Circle, Iceland may seem to be an unlikely scientific pacesetter. This island nation is about the size of the state of Kentucky, it has a population base comparable to Wichita, Kansas and the rugged, volcano-laden topography suggests an atmosphere of remote isolation.
In fact, the extraordinary, informed reaction to Covid-19 by the country’s medical and government leaders have put it in the forefront during the pandemic.
“How Iceland Beat the Coronavirus,” the headline in The New Yorker read. “The Country Didn’t Just Manage to Flatten the Curve, it Virtually Eliminated It.”
The numbers tell the story. This tiny Nordic state has had only — at this writing — 1,806 cases, 1,794 recoveries and 10 deaths.
True, there are less than 400,000 people in Iceland. No one disputes the claim that size certainly plays into the success rate. But the considered, detailed playbook Iceland employed is a model that is applicable worldwide.
For starters, Iceland had a realistic pandemic response plan at the ready; the essentials were organized in advance, modified over time. Many countries, for a variety of reasons, were caught by surprise: the virus was out of hand in the first inning.
“We had already been testing for about four weeks when we had the first case,” Alma Moller, Iceland’s Director of Health, said. Iceland was actually one of the few nations to begin testing in January — officials believe they have tested a higher percentage of their population than any other country.
This speedy response was not hamstrung by turf-infighting bureaucrats or contradictory messages fueled by speculative social media sources. Iceland pulled together on all fronts from the initial stages.
“Iceland is a small country, and what we sensed during this pandemic was great solidarity,” Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir told Time Magazine this week. “You could say that the responsibility was placed on the shoulders of each and every one of us…what we can learn from this is that it’s important to put your ego as a politician aside and learn from those humble scientists who have been faced with the crisis nobody could expect.”
In addition to rapid response testing and consistent information flow, social distancing measures were enacted; Iceland never did impose a strict, large-scale lockdown like ones in Europe or the United States.
Early on, Moller and others recognized the significant threat the virus presented to high risk groups, especially the elderly.
“We are protecting those who are the most sensitive to Covid-19,” Moller said months ago. “The elderly, those with certain pre-existing medical conditions – we want to protect them from infection as best we can.”
One of the most salient initiatives Iceland implemented was an extensive contact tracing system that relied on detective work by actual detectives and a tracing app that almost 50 percent of the population downloaded.
The contact tracing team was formed, again, before the first Covid-19 infection –Police Superintendent Aevar Palmason was put in charge of a 52-person squad charged with finding the contacts of the confirmed cases. Using traditional police procedures, such as reviewing travel manifests, tireless interviewing, and security camera monitoring, they have successfully pinpointed and quarantined infection spreaders.
The app has greatly aided contact tracing. If someone becomes infected, the GPS data is an invaluable source for tracking social contacts. “In practice, we use this to refresh people’s memories,” Palmason explained. “In some cases, people have told us they travelled from one end of the country to the other on a Saturday when the app tells us they travelled on Friday.”
In summary, Iceland had an edge on Covid-19 because of prudent pre-planning, expeditiously following that plan (especially in the areas of testing and contact tracing), and effectively communicating with the public. Politics were kept at a minimum.
Moller recently declared, “As things stand now, our measures have been working and no decisions have been taken in a state of panic.”
There are plenty of lessons here.