Iceland has been one of Europe’s COVID-19 hot spots the past few months, but citizens' vaccination status doesn’t affect their access to public spaces. It is a conscious choice in a small nation to try to avoid conflict in society, and it seems to be working. But death rates are being kept down for one main reason: so many people were already vaccinated anyway.
REYKJAVIK — Iceland is one of the countries in Europe where, up until recently, everything seemed to be almost back to normal. The island nation celebrated its “Freedom Day” last autumn, and even before that was the envy of many other European countries, successfully navigating its way through various waves with relatively few restrictions and a low death rate.
Its isolated position in the North Atlantic wasn’t the only factor. Experts say the country’s effective contact-tracing system and testing strategy were key. Until Omicron arrived on the scene. The new variant sparked the country’s biggest wave since the start of the pandemic.
Iceland’s 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 is over 4,000, one of the highest infection rates worldwide. Hospitals are under serious pressure, partly because a large proportion of their staff are having to isolate.
Record infection rates
The government responded by tightening restrictions, although these remain mild compared to other European countries. The maximum number of people at any gathering has been reduced from 20 to 10, there is a curfew in place from 10 pm, and bars and clubs are closed. But one thing will not change: anyone can go shopping, catch the bus or go to a restaurant without having to show a COVID vaccine or test certificate.
There was no desire to introduce a so-called "green pass," either among politicians or the general public, says Thor Aspelund, a biostatistician at the University of Iceland and advisor to Iceland’s chief epidemiologist. When most European countries were introducing these measures, they were briefly discussed in Iceland, but never seriously considered.
We’ve dealt with the whole thing peacefully
In November, the country's Chief Epidemiologist Thorolfur Gudnason explained his objections to COVID vaccine mandates. He said at the time there was “no basis” for discriminating between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, and that doing so could lead to “other problems” and make people less accepting of coronavirus measures.
Bird's eye view of Reykjavik
Even without putting pressure on unvaccinated people, the vaccination rate in Iceland is very high. Around 78% of the population is vaccinated (compared to 73% in Germany), and among over-12s, it's even higher at 91%. The government believes that the proportion of people who are unvaccinated is low enough to reduce the risks.
“We’ve dealt with the whole thing peacefully,” says Aspelund. “Because there was such an overwhelming majority in favor of vaccination, we never needed COVID passes.” He admits there are anti-vaxxers in Iceland, but there were only a few demonstrations and no widespread protests. “They were allowed to express their opinion, but they didn’t convince many others to join them.”
The Icelandic government has widespread support among the population. Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir is popular with many different political parties. Iceland is run by a coalition of three parties from across the political spectrum. Aspelund thinks this diversity is a major reason for the population’s trust in the government.
The few people who aren’t vaccinated would be pushed into the spotlight
“When we all need to pull together, we do,” says Karl Blöndal, acting chief editor of the Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid. Of course there is some COVID fatigue, but people also understand that the measures are necessary, “perhaps partly because we never had the strictest rules.”
Don't stigmatize the unvaccinated
He says he read a story about a man who was so afraid of the stigma of being unvaccinated that he lied to a hospital about his vaccination status. “If these kinds of problems are arising, something isn’t right.”
Government advisor Thor Aspelund thinks the decision not to introduce vaccine requirements has contributed to the sense of solidarity. “It would be quite harsh. The few people who aren’t vaccinated would be pushed into the spotlight. I would probably know straight away which of my friends were vaccinated and which weren’t.”
The government’s current measures are an attempt to bring case numbers down and avoid overwhelming the health service. In January, Iceland started vaccinating children over the age of 5. The vaccination program is going well, says Aspelund. If it isn’t enough, he says they will look at new measures in February. But vaccine mandates will not be on the table.