Iceland is a normal outpost amid the Covid pandemic

Reykjavik, Iceland (CNN) – It was a casual hug from an old friend, and yet it turned out to be very traumatic. I had returned to my native Iceland the day before and now armed with a negative Covid-19 test from the airport, here I was in a bustling café in Reykjavik.

“Hello, a long time without seeing you!” Two friends greeted me and one gave me a warm hug, but my natural reaction was to walk away from them, and it was difficult for me to have such a close conversation. Her natural ease, which six months ago would have felt so normal, now felt uncomfortable and stressful. My tongue felt stuck, and my manners and chutzpah seemed to have abandoned me.

I mumbled something to my old friends and then went to find refuge in a cup of tea. There I recovered, gathered my thoughts, and went back for another round of gossip. And it felt liberating to have normal conversations again.

As I walked from the cafe, I reflected on my last few months at home in London, where there have been months of confinement, skyrocketing infection rates, and tens of thousands of deaths. The new normal for me had been working from home with only the closest family and video calls for company, plus limited exercise per day and a handful of updates with local friends, but always from a safe distance of two meters.

Iceland has been praised for its handling of the crisis after an initial spike in cases in February. The government then changed tactics, began testing and tracking, closed the borders, and introduced restrictions. I suppose one could argue that the chances of success are much higher on an island with a population of around 360,000 people. Fewer than 2,000 cases and 10 deaths have been recorded.

It also helps that Icelanders showed great faith in the government and sat glued to media briefings not provided by politicians but by senior scientists and the police, following all their advice.

I have joined most of the country to download an app that tracks your movement. It is designed to help authorities track down and notify anyone who may have been in contact with or affected by the virus. What follows are evidence and possibly quarantine.

All of this has resulted in people here being able to carry on with their lives relatively normally. I was a regular at our popular pools, attended soccer games, dined with friends, and attended parties where the conversation has been dominated more by Will Ferrell’s recent Eurovision film about Iceland than by Covid-19.

The bars and restaurants in Reykjavik are also full and there is no mask in sight. The only reminder that things are not quite normal are the hand sanitizers found everywhere and the early closing of 11pm, which is usually the time when Icelanders are just starting the party.

The biggest economic victim of the coronavirus has been tourism. Last year, nearly 2 million tourists visited and that number has now dropped to a trickle, but locals have responded by enjoying vacations. Social media is full of spectacular images of friends traveling around the island, and hotels and camping sites across the country are full.

The government is also encouraging this trend by providing each resident with a bonus of 10,000 IKR ($ 74) to spend on restaurants, hotels, and attractions.

But as the biggest summer travel weekend approaches, everyone will remember that this is a year like no other. This last long weekend of summer vacation would normally mean big festivals across the country, but with banning gatherings of more than 500 people, they are all canceled.

Big events like the Westman Island Þjóðhátíð party are off, the first time it has been canceled since the First World War. Not even the great volcanic eruption in 1974 stood in the way of that celebration. But, with typical Icelandic optimism, they are already selling tickets for 2021.

There is still a great deal of fear and no one is complacent; many are concerned that people are too relaxed and that it can only lead to another increase, especially with the easing of border restrictions and the arrival of more tourists. It is a sign that People here do not take for granted their privileged position, but also their desire to maintain their lifestyle.

It hasn’t taken me long to adjust to freedom here, so when I bumped into my cousin who had just arrived from Miami, I went to hug him, but like my first reaction a couple of weeks earlier, he took a step back.

He also faces stricter rules because he came from the US, whose citizens are still prohibited from entering Iceland, so he had to wait at least five days and get two negative test results before he could hug anyone here. .

Listening to my friends here, I remember not only this country’s ability to cope with adversity, but also Iceland’s unofficial catchphrase: “Þetta reddast”, which roughly translates to “Everything will be fine in the end.” It has helped us through a global financial crisis, a volcanic eruption that has flooded flights around the world, and we hope it will continue for the coronavirus again.