Health & Science

Trust in authorities, a key factor in Norway’s COVID-19 pandemic management success

Trust in one another and in the authorities has been a major factor in successfully controlling the COVID-19 pandemic in Norway, a commission report notes. But authorities didn’t do everything well.

fjord Norway
© Robert Bye

The Coronavirus Commission issued on April 26 the second part of its 2-year-long inquiry into the management of the COVID-19 pandemic by Norwegian authorities.

This independent commission overall praised that the “country’s population and its authorities have handled the pandemic well”. It noted that “many individuals have gone well beyond the call of duty to help control the pandemic” despite one of the “least restrictive infection control regimes” in Europe.

And one of the first reasons for success is the high degree of trust in one another and the authorities, the commission points out: “This trust was a major factor in the population’s support for infection control measures as well as the high rate of vaccination that was achieved”. Moreover, the population’s trust in authorities didn’t fade during the crisis.

The European Union was also beneficial in getting vaccines the commission notes, comparing Norway’s procurement strategy with other individual countries like the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Israel and Canada. Although Norway is not part of the EU, it decided to adhere to its joint procurement scheme after having first opened negotiations with vaccine manufacturers on its own.

Norway has been perceived as one of the countries with the best management of the pandemic. It was one of the first countries to scrap nearly all restrictions in February. A country of 5.4 million people, it recorded only 2,900 COVID-19-associated deaths since February 2020, according to official data from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. The country reported 1,400,000 million COVID-19 infections as of April 26, 2022.

However, the commission still pointed out weaknesses in Norway’s policy before Omicron.

Late vaccination prioritization for the coronavirus commission

The commission released a first report in April 2021 and was tasked to keep on reviewing the country’s actions.

But the commission has only reviewed actions until October 31 last year, which mostly encompasses the government of Erna Solberg who, in October, left the prime minister’s position she held for 8 years after her coalition lost the majority in the legislative elections. As such, it doesn’t include the management of the pandemic with the Omicron surge: 854 people were admitted to intensive care since November, or 44% of all the admissions related to COVID-19 so far in Norway.

As it wasn’t part of its scope, the commission didn’t review either the isolation of incoming travelers for ten days in hotels at their own expense, which was highly criticized in Norway, to see if it infringed the country’s laws.

Like in many other developed countries, hospitals were not ready for the large influx of intensive care patients, and stockpiles of tests and medicines were inadequate. Moreover, the commission considers authorities were not well prepared to manage the COVID-19 pandemic when it arrived in Norway as there was no emergency plan drafted for such a long pandemic in the country, and pandemic exercises had not been carried out in a long time.

For the commission, “pre-existing plans and prior experience never fully anticipate how a new crisis will unfold. But the ability to effectively manage any crisis relies importantly on preparation: plans, training, exercises, experience and mindset.

Norway, where 74% of the population is completely vaccinated, could have also done better by prioritizing vaccination to geographical areas with high infection rates earlier, the report notes. The region of Oslo for instance had a high rate of infection and lacked vaccine doses, at some point.

Prioritization is also one of the reasons why the commission thinks Norway insufficiently protected children and young people by the consequences of the infection control measures, pointing out that the country should have prioritized vaccines for teachers and other childcare professionals earlier.

The government of Norway centralized most of the decisions

Authorities also underestimated the virus transmission into Norway via cross-border travel. Furthermore, they took too much time to adapt measures to the immigrant population, with a lack of appropriate information and testing strategy to overcome social barriers in a population over-represented in COVID-19 infection statistics and underrepresented among the vaccinated.

In Norway, the government has centralized most of the pandemic management efforts, even measures of smaller importance. And the commission believes that too many issues were elevated to the government’s table, which in turn analyzed too many of them and made decisions with “unnecessary time pressure”.

In two years, regulations related to the coronavirus were amended 358 times, which didn’t make the jobs of local authorities, doctors and law enforcement, who received information at the same time as the population, easy to implement changes.

Reacting to the report in a Facebook post, the former prime minister Erna Solberg wrote she was “pleased that the commission continues to conclude the overall handling has been successful and that the results in Norway are very good compared to other European countries.”

She however disagreed with the commission’s critical comments on the vaccination deployment strategy, defending the choice of prioritizing people with health conditions and at risk in low-infected areas rather than healthy people in cities with high infection rates. She also considered that delegating decisions would not have proven more efficient and that it was on the contrary a reason for their successful handling of the pandemic.

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