Over the next few weeks, Iceland Review’s Ragnar Tómas will be publishing a series of articles on life in the time of COVID.
April 9, 2020
For the first time yesterday, I heard the flap of a raven’s wings.
The bird, which has long been associated with our island – as Óðinn’s emissary, as the guide of the first settlers, as a winged friend warning of impending avalanches – flew through the snow-covered trees near the driveway and sounded almost like a small dragon beating its wings overhead. I don’t know if the conditions were merely right (there are fewer cars on the roads, the raven flew low), or whether, following long days of isolation, my senses are slowly becoming attuned to nature.
Maybe I’m losing my mind.
COVID-19 arrived in Iceland on February 28 (the first confirmed case), likely via the Swiss or Italian Alps. The disease spread slowly at first, but between March 10 and March 16, the daily infections doubled, and on March 15, a ban on public gatherings was instituted (criminalising the congregation of more than 99 people). Over the last few days, the infections have begun to peter out, and they say that we’ve passed the peak of the pandemic, with the rate of convalescence exceeding the rate of contagion.
But there’s always the possibility of a second wave.
On March 24, the ban on public gatherings was tightened and extended to May 4. The updated restrictions limit public gatherings to 19 people and mandate the closing of public pools, gyms, theatres, clubs, etc. Although the rhythm of our lives has slowed significantly, my wife and I have been quick to adjust; how swiftly the strange becomes mundane. We are both working from home, at a reduced employment ratio, as the economy has withered, and our son, who is 18 months old, attends preschool every other day (for seven hours, not eight). Like so many other parents, we have learned that sanity is largely a matter of maintaining some semblance of a routine – no matter how contrived.
Fixtures of this routine include the 3.00pm drive to the stables in Kópavogur, where the three of us pretend we’re patrons of a drive-through zoo licensed only to exhibit horses; the 9.00am body-weight session in the garage, where I attempt to exercise as my son substantiates the second law of thermodynamics (disorder tends to a maximum); and, most significantly, the 2.00pm press briefing with “the triumvirate” (technically, “the trio,” which, admittedly, doesn’t sound quite as grand: Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason), when my wife and I look on, as our son endeavours to plug audio jacks into household orifices.
The biggest changes, however, have also been the smallest.
When I visited my mother-in-law in the past, I greeted her with an embrace. It had become a routine act but one invested with plenty of understated emotion. Now, we keep our distance, standing back in the foyer and smiling awkwardly. I used to visit my grandparents every week to watch Manchester United (remember football?). Now, I drop by for a quick cup of coffee and suffer a terrible pang of conscience (they encourage me to visit, but I’m not so sure). And didn’t we used to yell at the TV whenever someone was about to be unknowingly murdered? Now, we yell at anyone daft enough to shake hands (“What are you doing!?”).
And then there’s the endless disinfection: a constant, frantic ritual that has insinuated itself into every organ of our lives. Even “Pizza Night” on Fridays begins with something of an apocalyptic prelude. The methodical transfer of pizza onto dishes from the box. The wiping down of the Coke bottle. The doing away with the plastic packaging. The everlasting washing of our hands.
We try to remind ourselves, however, that we’ve got it good; unlike many other countries, the Icelandic authorities have not ordered a complete lockdown. Many businesses remain open (so long as their operations don’t conflict with the ban on public gatherings), and although unemployment has skyrocketed, and most people are working from home – the streets are far from empty. We still go outside. To the coffeehouses. To the stores. To the restaurants (although many of them are closed). And despite this relative laxity, we appear to be containing the contagion quite effectively.
I regularly juxtapose our comparative freedom with the restrictions in place in Cyprus, where my sister and her fiancé are studying medicine. They are not allowed to leave their apartment without first receiving permission, via a text message, from the local authorities. In California, where my brother is completing his doctorate, he must abide by a statewide lockdown. He lives in a shoebox off-campus and sometimes, he tells me, several days pass without him leaving the house. In Florida, where my parents are sojourning – embedded within a population of elderly retirees – there is little to do except inveigh over the president’s boundless incompetence (they’ve even closed the golf courses).
Meanwhile, in Iceland, I cannot stop observing the ravens, who seem, of late, to have been thrown into sharper focus.
I’ve heard it said that the principal feature of the Anthropocene – the geological era of man – is that its progression shall remind humankind that we are a part of nature, that we cannot wall ourselves off from nature. Nature will not suffer the price for our putative enrichment forever without, to borrow a phrase from J. P. Müller, avenging herself with “mathematical certainty.”
There shall be a reckoning.
Perhaps the strangest side effect of the pandemic is that it has liberated us, at least momentarily, from the quiet apprehension of a looming environmental catastrophe by substituting that anxiety with a different species of dread. It makes you wonder whether it’s the mark of the global economy’s insanity* that we are “at war” with the virus and that we are witnessing the collapse of our collective economies, but that the smog is clearing, the emissions are down – and that one has newly heard the flap of a raven’s wings?
*“There is an insanity at work in the global economy, whereby nature pays the price for society’s putative enrichment. The irony here is that peace and prosperity (our highest, and perhaps even only ideals as a society these days) merely aggravate our debt to nature and promote environmental degradation.” – Robert P. Harrison
As of April 14, in Iceland, over 1,700 people have been infected with COVID-19. Thirty-nine people are in the hospital. Eight are in intensive care. Eight have died. Iceland has tested more people for the disease per capita than any other country (with, perhaps, the exception of the Faroe Islands).