THEOn February 26, the Faroe Islands became officially free from Covid-19. Since July 2020, our archipelago has experienced three waves of the virus, with the number of cases declining rapidly each time. At first this seemed like luck. Now, it looks more like the result of a successful strategy.
How do we manage it? Somehow, our response to Covid-19 followed the same map as other countries: testing, contact tracing, lockdowns, public health campaigns, and a shakeup of our healthcare sector. But, in other respects, our approach was unique. Unlike most other governments, we decided early on that we wanted to influence the behavior of our citizens by issuing recommendations, not making laws.
Trust breeds trust, or at least that has been true in our case. We are convinced that limiting our citizens by law, rather than encouraging them with recommendations, would have left us worse off than we are now.
But this trust-based strategy wasn’t the only reason we managed to eliminate Covid. Our management of the pandemic during the spring and summer was unique in the scale and effectiveness of its testing capacity. The Faroe Islands had the world the highest testing rate per capita last year. We test up to 2% of the population – or 1,000 people – every day (our total population a little more 50,000). In June, we required all travelers to the Faroe Islands to be tested at the airport upon arrival, and we recommend that they be tested again six days later.
Testability doesn’t come out of nowhere. Our industrial sector has put us at a great advantage. Farmed salmon production is a key industry in the Faroe Islands and, in the past, salmon farmers have been plagued by salmon disease, which has caused several industry collapses. In response, our veterinary authorities built the necessary infrastructure for rapid salmon disease testing in an emergency.
When the pandemic occurred, Faroese veterinary authorities proposed adapting these testing labs so that they could be used to test humans for Covid-19. They collaborated with private laboratories and the public health sector, enabling the Faroe Islands to increase its testing capacity to approximately 5-7% of the population per day in August, which we combined with contact isolation and tracing policies. .
Our elimination of Covid is a story about the ingenuity of individuals and organizations with no history of collaboration working together during the pandemic. Of course, other factors have also played a role. Geography matters: sea and air are the only points of arrival to the Faroe Islands, making it easier to manage potential Covid cases among inbound travelers. Instead of taking buses and trains, most people drive to work, which means that commuting is unlikely to cause many infections.
Furthermore, our population is much smaller than that of many other countries and the overall levels of trust are high. A survey conducted last May by the University of the Faroe Islands indicates that the majority of the Faroe Islands have a high level of trust in the government, the prime minister, the Faroese media, their own municipality, the chief police, health authorities and experts, and finally, in the people of the Faroe Islands in general.
This is good news for disease management. Trust in political institutions, the media and among citizens makes any type of management, including that of a pandemic, easier. In small societies, there is often more informal vigilance and the inhabitants tend to have a strong sense of self-discipline. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that the Faroe Islands “rural panopticon”- the academic term for social control in small, rural societies – has led to more comprehensive testing, more effective tracking and tracing, and greater public compliance with quarantine, hygiene and social distancing measures.
Just trying is not enough. Many of the countries with the highest testing rates are also among those with the most Covid cases. Testing is only successful when combined with measures such as effective contact tracing and isolation. And, in general, the success or not of a country’s Covid-19 strategy depends on the geography and social circumstances of that country. So has our relatively successful experience with Covid-19 so far been the result of luck or competition? The answer is: a bit of both.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism