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When Iceland abolished the rule of law


THROUGHOUT  the pandemic, lawyer Sigriour Andersen was almost the only Icelandic MP who questioned the country’s counter-measures, starting as early as in the summer of 2020. She has now published a detailed essay on the legal aspects of the Covid restrictions in Iceland, explaining how the rule of law was abolished.

One questionable infringement of liberty included the use of credit card transaction data to locate people. Second, in March 2021 the Minister of Health enacted a regulation requiring all visitors from areas where Covid-19 incidence was above a certain limit to quarantine for 14 days at a specific government-run facility. This requirement was deemed unlawful by the District Court of Reykjavik in April that year, but she writes: ‘The only reaction from the Ministry of Health to the court ruling was to encourage those who were granted their freedom by the court ruling to consider to still finish their stay at the State facility.’

A third example is that on July 27 2021 the Minister of Healthcare issued a regulation demanding all Icelanders travelling from abroad to present a negative PCR test before boarding a flight to the country. The Icelandic constitution clearly states that no Icelandic citizen may be denied entry. But the constitution was of no importance any more. In Andersen’s words: ‘My fellow MPs did not comment on the matter. Not even those who led the amendments on the bill in May regarding the exclusion of Icelanders from this requirement. Perhaps upcoming elections had something to do with the silence on Covid measures.’

When the Covid pandemic struck many described it as something unprecedented, a new Spanish flu, even comparing it to the Black Death. It soon became clear that those comparisons were far off. As Andersen points out, the only thing unprecedented was the reaction: ‘Never has handling of an emerging new threat been treated with such disregard of the Rule of Law and fundamental rights of liberty. What has been unprecedented during the past two years is the handling of the situation. Governing by decree rather than by arguing cases and debating them in parliament.’

This should be viewed in light of the atmosphere in the society at the time. Every single day, two doctors and a police officer held daily press briefings, recounting cases and deaths, announcing new or changed rules, doing their best to keep the fear of the virus alive. And successful they surely were. Support for measures against the virus was at over 96 per cent at the highest. Trust in mainstream media was also high compared with many other countries. The vaccination ratio in Iceland is also among the highest in the world. In this atmosphere, tolerance for dissenting voices was low. 

In the autumn of 2020, Andersen along with a small group of people, including doctors, lawyers and economists, issued a declaration requiring a fundamental review of government policies. The focus should be on protecting the vulnerable, rather than ruining society with lockdowns and closing schools. The core team consisted of Mrs. Andersen, an Icelandic doctor and professor at Harvard Medical School, and myself. Earlier in November, we had hosted an interview with professor Martin Kulldorff, discussing the Great Barrington Declaration which had been issued shortly before. The group followed up on the declaration by newspaper articles and interviews with doctors, psychologists and philosophers, set up an information website aimed at providing fact-based rather than fear-based guidance, and set up a Facebook group to facilitate the exchange of information. The interview with Kulldorff provoked strong reaction, mostly negative, and we were branded ‘the Trump Troika’ by some newspapers.

In 2021, Andersen lost her seat in Parliament, no doubt largely because of her criticism of the pandemic response.

The group Andersen brought together in the fall 2020 included 40-50 people, many of them influential in politics, business and academia and what they all had in common was scepticism towards the government’s pandemic response and concern for the lack of consideration for the bigger picture. But only a handful of those people were willing to speak openly about their concerns. I know of many more, including politicians, even government ministers, who had similar concerns, but didn’t dare speak their mind. And those are the people we trust to have, and openly to air their concerns, to consider the bigger picture and make balanced decisions. Why didn’t they? 

What happened was that functionaries in the narrow field of medical science were effectively put in charge of the country based on the ‘follow the science’ mantra. Governing a country based on only a single, narrow field of science is of course absurd. Think of a country at war where those tasked with refuelling the tanks are put in charge of government. The only conceivable reason the electorate would buy into this mantra is irrational mass-panic and the extreme narrowing of focus it induces. In such an environment, speaking out against the prevailing mantra is risky to say the least. The functionaries effectively entrusted with running the country made it clear no deviation was tolerated. Their decisions should simply be implemented automatically, without discussion and without delay. They repeatedly made it clear that in their eyes the job of politicians was just to rally the people around the cause and suppress all dissent. In this atmosphere dissenters were instantly attacked and smeared, not only by the governing troika and media, but by the panicked crowd as well. Speaking up meant you might lose your job, lose your clients and friends, so for most people this was not an option.

What Andersen describes echoes the description of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben of the state of exception, a key concept in his political theory, a state realised when law and constitution are abandoned and the executive arm of the state takes the reins, usually based on a declaration of a state of emergency. As Agamben explains his seminal work, State of Exception, the Third Reich was based on a state of emergency throughout, as the Weimar constitution was in fact ‘unplugged’ right at the beginning, while formally being unchanged the whole time. Looking back, this is precisely what happened in March 2020.

It was not only the law and constitution that were abandoned, leadership disappeared as well. This actually happened in most countries. But there are striking counterexamples. One is Sweden. 

The Swedish government certainly delegated power to the chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. Their luck was that Tegnell had a proper understanding of the responsibility handed to him and instead of making decisions based only on the narrow view of epidemiology, he took a broad view of society as a whole. Probably because he knew no one else would. Johan Giesecke, Tegnell’s predecessor, has explained how he appointed Tegnell because of his utter disregard for what people said of him, as Swedish journalist Johan Andersen recently explained. And as they prepared their recommendations of no lockdowns and no mask-mandates, Andersen mentions Giesecke’s email to Tegnell where he quotes 18th century statesman Axel Oxenstierna, a key player in forming the modern Swedish state, advising his son on diplomatic matters: An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur. (Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.)

When I researched the response and situation in the Faroe Islands a few months ago, what struck me was how fundamentally different their approach was compared with Iceland. In the Faroe Islands (part of the Kingdom of Denmark, with executive power in local affairs) ministers made the final decisions. They often disagreed with their own epidemic committee, for example when they decided not to order lockdowns, to keep schools open, not to issue mask mandates. They took their leadership responsibility seriously, and perhaps it was because of this that fear of the virus never reached the heights it did in most neighbouring countries.

The way political leaders around the world abandoned their responsibility as leaders most certainly points to a profound weakness in our political structure and in our culture that goes beyond the ever-present danger of the state of exception described by Agamben. Why this happened and what we can do to mend it is beyond the scope of this short article, but it is certainly one of the most important questions of our times, if not the most important one. 

Sigriour Andersen’s account of events during the past 30 months is an important testimony to this, and her courage and relentless defence of human rights and the wellbeing of society as a whole, without any regard to her own personal interests, remind us that despite the recent catastrophic failure, the potential for true political leadership has not disappeared.

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Thorsteinn Siglaugsson
Thorsteinn Siglaugsson
Thorsteinn Siglaugsson is an Icelandic economist, consultant and writer. Author of From Symptoms to Causes - Applying the Logical Thinking Process to an Everyday Problem.

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