We All Protest!

At the heart of downtown Reykjavík lies the small, sheltered Austurvöllur square, criss-crossed by walking paths and lined with lilac trees. In the middle of the square, facing the unassuming two-storey structure that houses Iceland’s parliament, is a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, leader of Iceland’s 19th century campaign for independence from Denmark. At a national meeting called by the Danish government in 1851, Jón led Icelandic representatives in opposing a new constitution which would limit Icelanders’ rights. “We all protest!” they famously called out. “Vér mótmælum allir!”

The statue of this celebrated Icelandic protester has since fittingly looked down upon many other activists who have occupied Austurvöllur, which has since become the gathering place for locals who want to speak out on any issue. While many are familiar with Iceland’s mass protests following the 2008 banking collapse, the country’s history of protest in the modern era is much longer and more complex, spurred by issues ranging from women’s liberation and nuclear disarmament to, most recently, action on climate change and asylum seekers’ rights.

Yet by many measures, Icelanders are among the happiest people on earth, and Iceland one of the best places to live. So, what is it that drives locals of a wealthy, peaceful country to protest in the streets? And have these protests, miniscule on a global scale, spurred any tangible changes?

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Chief Epidemioligist Wants Condoms in Primary Schools

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason wants condoms to be distributed in primary schools in an effort to stop the spread of STIs, RÚV reports. Recent research has shown that there are more cases of syphilis in Iceland proportionally than anywhere else in Europe. Chlamydia is also relatively common in Iceland compared to other countries in the region.

According to a new report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Iceland has a rate of syphilis diagnosis of 15.4 of every 100,000 residents. Of all European countries, Iceland’s rate is proportionally the highest. If left untreated, the sexually transmitted infection can cause disorders of the heart, brain, and nervous system.

Syphylis, gonnorhoea rates rise

The number of syphilis diagnoses in Iceland has fluctuated significantly in recent years. While it dropped in 2011 and 2013, it showed a large increase in 2017 with 52 diagnoses. In 2018, 30 were diagnosed with the STI.

“Sex has become freer and people are not using condoms. That’s really the only explanation for this,” stated Þórólfur. “Other sexually transmitted diseases have increased in Iceland as well, such as gonorrhoea. And the frequency of chlamydia is high here, probably the highest in Europe.”

According to Þórólfur, chlamydia rates are highest in Iceland among those between 18-25. Syphilis, on the other hand, is more common among homosexual men, as is the case elsewhere abroad. “It is worth noting that the increase here [in syphilis diagnoses] has primarily been explained by the migration of people to Iceland, foreigners,” Þórólfur adds, “which has raised these numbers.”

Parents oppose condoms in primary schools

Þórólfur wants to see condoms distributed in primary schools as well as secondary schools to prevent the spread of STIs. “There are many who are opposed to that, many parents,” he says. “But we need to discuss this very well and we need to do everything we can to stop the spread of these diseases, which can be very serious. People can have chlamydia and have few symptoms or be asymptomatic. But the access here to diagnosis and treatment is very good. There has been much talk about bringing screening, research, and diagnosis out into society, to at-risk groups. There are debates about doing that, and that’s one part of trying to find as many people as possible in the early stages so they don’t infect others.”

Fast-Track Road Repairs for Nearly Half a Billion

 

Road maintenance projects amounting to nearly half a billion krónur that were scheduled for next year will be moved forward to this year, RÚV reports. Due to delays in other road construction projects, the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has decided to shift ISK 430 million ($3.4m/€3m) of this year’s budget to major maintenance projects.

The near half billion “will be primarily used in top layers, new asphalt, because it’s much needed,” stated Magnús Valur Jóhannsson, director of the Administration’s construction department. “This is for the most part on the most traffic-heavy roads here in South Iceland, for example around Selfoss and Biskupstungur, Geysir for example.” Magnús says the Reykjavík capital area has the heaviest traffic in the country and will also see significant repairs, as well as parts of the Reykjanes peninsula. So-called “improvement projects” will be carried out on roads in both Blönduós, North Iceland and the Þingvellir area in South Iceland.

While the reallocation represents a significant amount, it can be noted that the Road and Coastal Administration normally spends around ISK 6 billion ($47.7m/€42.3m) per year on road repairs. “It was of course clear that maintenance needs are much higher than we have the resources to execute, but fortunately we are now adding to that so hopefully that will improve,” Magnús stated.