Europe’s Covid killers: How Iceland and Finland quashed the second wave

Why public trust may be key to supressing the coronavirus pandemic

Pedestrians gather during a street food festival at Reykjavik Harbour, in Reykjavik, Iceland on Sunday, July 19, 2020. Foreigners returned to Iceland on Monday after a hiatus imposed by the Covid-19 outbreak, in a welcome sign for an island nation whose economy is reliant on tourism. Photographer: Sigga Ella/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Iceland and Finland, Europe’s star performers in suppressing the coronavirus pandemic, have both attributed high levels of public trust in officialdom as being behind their success in quashing the second wave.

And in what could be viewed as a warning to nations considering mass testing, the head of Iceland’s virus response said it may be “too late” for governments to rely on such programmes as their ticket out of the pandemic.

Iceland chief epidemiologist Thorolfur Gudnason said his country began coronavirus testing nearly a month before its first positive case.

He said the country also relied on genome sequencing to track the origin of the virus to cut it off at the source - which could only happen because the public had faith in the job that health officials and police were doing.

Iceland has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe with 4,931 cases and 12 deaths recorded for a population of nearly 357,000.

However, the top doctor warned the approach of rapid and widespread testing might be futile for countries where the virus is already deep-rooted in the community.

Dr Gudnason told London’s Chatham House: “In dealing with this, one of the advantages for us is we tried to deal with the first cases as soon as possible.

“You have to do it very early. You have to catch the epidemic in the beginning phase.”

He explained that if the virus is “spreading out” it may already be too late to rely on mass testing.

“We are an isolated island we are scarcely populated - we have all the things going for us. I’m not sure it will be as easy in other countries, which will have to rely more on the general restrictions of lockdowns.

“Iceland has never had a lockdown.”

Dr Gudnason, who has the power to override elected politicians in health emergencies, said the country was able to identify the Italian Alps, England and the US as places where the virus was being imported into the country.

He said Iceland was quickly able to isolate people from those areas.

“We knew how and when this virus came into Iceland,” he added.

Finland, with its population of five million, has seen much of the same success as Iceland.

Citizens wear face masks at the Hakaniemi Sunday market in Helsinki, Finland, on Sunday Nov. 1, 2020. People continue their lives with Sunday markets although face masks have become more popular to protect against the coronavirus. (Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva via AP)
Citizens wear face masks at the Hakaniemi Sunday market in Helsinki, Finland, on Sunday Nov. 1, 2020. People continue their lives with Sunday markets although face masks have become more popular to protect against the coronavirus. (Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva via AP)

Experts put the country’s quiet success down to high levels of trust in government, businesses that are well-adapted for home-working and cultural aspects such as a distinctly Finnish preference for time alone.

Even though much international attention has focused on next-door Sweden’s light-touch response, Finland has kept infection levels five times below the EU average, with a lesser hit to its economy and one-tenth the number of deaths per capita of its Scandinavian neighbour.

In the last two weeks, the Nordic country has recorded 45.7 new cases per 100,000 population - the lowest rate in the EU, according to the World Health Organisation.

It is the only country in the bloc where the rate of new infections has slowed since the previous fortnight.

Much of Europe is struggling to contain the second wave after a litany of failures over the summer led to record infection rates.

Finland’s top epidemiologist Mika Salminine said last week “the situation looked worrying when there was a rapid growth in infections" earlier in October.

"But it's clear that the peak has passed,” he said.

Officials credit the outcome to factors such as early government action, which included a two-month lockdown in March and a ban on travel in and out of the capital city, Helsinki.

Since then, society has largely reopened and an effective test and trace system was developed, revolving around a smartphone app.

The Corona Flash application, downloaded 2.5 million times among a population of 5.5 million, has escaped the functionality and privacy problems that have hit similar initiatives in countries from the UK to Norway.

Like elsewhere in the Nordics, high levels of trust towards authority in Finland have resulted in little resistance to the government's measures.

epa08774705 Elf Härveli (L) from the Santa Claus office serves a few customers in Santa Claus village at the Arctic Circle, near Rovaniemi, Finland, 24 October 2020 (issued 26 October 2020). Santa Claus village on the Arctic Circle has been struck hard by the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in tourist staying home and leaving the streets of the village almost empty. The famous postal service - with letters and parcels sent directly from Santa's own post office - has been reduced and local restaurants and souvenir shops have far less customers than usual at the start of the pre-Christmas season.  EPA/KAISA SIREN  ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET
The damage coronavirus has done to Finland's economy has been lower than that of its neighbours. EPA

Not only have Finns followed the rules, but European Parliament research last week found that 23 per cent of respondents in the country said that lockdown had actually improved their lives, making Finland the most positive country in Europe towards the its coronavirus restrictions.

One reason is likely to be the relative ease of switching to distance-working in the highly digitised society.

"The economy is structured so that it's not necessary for a large proportion of the Finnish workforce to be in the workplace," Nelli Hankonen, associate professor of social psychology at Helsinki University, said.

But the national traits of the Finns, often characterised as reserved and lovers of outdoor pursuits, may also have played a part.

"In Finnish culture we are not that highly sociable," Mr Hankonen said. "We like to be on our own and be a bit isolated."

Nonetheless, the solitude of lockdown has exacerbated mental health issues which already affect one in five people in Finland, the highest rate in the OECD.

"Social support might not be easily available, it's the other side of the coin of how we were able to adapt to the lockdown," Mr Hankonen said.

The number of shoppers and diners on the streets of Helsinki now looks almost the same as pre-virus levels.

Few people are wearing masks, although authorities have recently begun recommending them.

"My daily life actually hasn't been affected too much," healthcare assistant Gegi Aydin said, though his plan to switch careers to graphic design have been disrupted by a lack of job vacancies.

The 36-year-old also admits that his social life is now more cautious.

He said: "My friends don't really want to meet sometimes, which is understandable."

In the capital's hip Punavuori district, restaurateur Richard McCormick is hanging plants and lights inside a row of protective glass cabins outside his restaurant Yes Yes Yes.

"We're making them look like it's somebody's living room and people can have private dining experiences in them," he said.

Finland's economy shrank 6.4 per cent in the second quarter, considerably less than the EU average of 14 per cent, but the hit to the restaurant industry has been "devastating", Mr McCormick said.

An ongoing 50 per cent capacity restriction and shorter opening hours mean that his two restaurants have had to lay off many staff.

But with no restrictions on outdoor seating, Mr McCormick said the glass houses "have helped us get most of our teammates back".

"We have to try to find new ways to deal with everyday life and keep smiling,” he said.