So, how about this year? It wasn’t a very good one, was it? If nothing else, though, it was certainly newsworthy, even if one topic above all others dominated the past 12 months: the fifth and final season of She-Ra, Princesses of Power.
Or so we would hope, in our wildest dreams. It was SARS-CoV-2, better known as the coronavirus, which hijacked most of our headlines this year, and threw this country into a health, social and economic crisis. However, it’s not the only thing that happened, so let’s break down the top news stories in Iceland 2020, month by month.
This year was rung in with disastrous fashion, as the first major news story in Iceland of 2020 was three avalanches on a single night in the Westfjords. On the night of January 14th, two avalanches in Flateyri and one in Súgandafjörður, across from Suðureyri, struck within very little time of one another around midnight that night. There were no deaths, fortunately, but they proved devastating to the infrastructure of the region, and necessitated emergency government assistance. Later in the month, another avalanche at Mt. Esja took the life of a hiker.
February continued the theme of natural disasters. First, a series of earthquakes in Reykjanes which were strongly felt in the capital area and other factors indicated increased activity of the Mt. Þorbjörn volcano. In the end, it hasn’t erupted—yet. Days later, a cyclone touched down in Iceland, bringing with it the worst weather in many years and causing one death.
While the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Iceland happened on February 28th, it was March that defined the start of Iceland’s part in the global pandemic. In this month alone, the first quarantine was ordered, the first death was reported, and Iceland first closed its borders to non-EEA citizens. A coordinated pandemic response team, led by Directorate of Health director Alma Möller, chief epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and chief superintendent of Civil Defense Viðir Reynisson, was initiated, in concerted cooperation with deCODE founder and CEO Kári Stefánsson.
As flights to and from Iceland were severely restricted, Iceland’s economy was effectively torpedoed. A huge chunk of Iceland’s economic life relies on tourism, and the choking off of any way to or from the country created a massive unemployment crisis. This subsequently prompted the government to allow for a partial employment scheme, wherein unemployment benefits were extended to those partially affected or left jobless. Unfortunately, incidences of domestic violence also spiked this month, with numbers of such incidences doubling from the year previous.
Icelandair teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, which only underscored the worries that tourism industry had about the summer, typically the high season in Iceland. Pandemic restrictions laid out during the spring seemed to be working well, however, and so the government announced later in the month that they would open the country again, fully, to tourists. While there was much rejoicing over the decision, many expressed concerns that there were still many unanswered questions, in particular as to how Iceland would deal with tourists arriving who turned out to be infected with the coronavirus.
On June 15th, the Icelandic government began to permit Schengen nationals to visit Iceland for non-essential travel, with the further announcement that non-Schengen nationals would be permitted on July 1st. This brought with it the establishment of border screening at Keflavík International Airport and at the port of call in Seyðisfjörður for the ferry from Europe. However, this month was also marked by tragedy, as a fire tore through a house in West Reykjavík, killing three people. Further investigations would find that the house was crowded, unsuitable for habitation, and illegally registered as a residence. This led to protests calling for greater protections of foreign workers, as all of the residents of the house were immigrants. This month also saw Iceland’s first participation in Black Lives Matter, with a rally that was attended by 4,000 people.
July kicked off with some hope, as the EU agreed to admit 15 non-Schengen countries (the US not amongst them) and Iceland went along with that, too. Unfortunately, things were less hopeful for Icelandair flight attendants, who were fired in the midst of labour negotiations over their wages and other issues, prompting sharp criticism from unions over the tactic. Meanwhile, US ambasssdor to Iceland Jeffrey Ross Gunter got into the news for all the wrong reasons. From arguably racist content on his official Twitter account, to a lack of embassy services, to reports that he wanted to start carrying a handgun, US citizens in Iceland began to call for his removal. However, as the president who appointed him is on his way out, Gunter’s days are now numbered anyway. The month closed out with increased coronavirus restrictions as it became apparent that relaxing the restrictions last June had backfired.
August was a mysterious month. Our top-ranking story for the entire month was a video of a possible cryptid spotted in Iceland (which to all appearances was probably a tripod). Double screening at the border was put into place, but many arrivals to Iceland were totally unaware of them. As the summer drew to a close, the northern lights returned, which was well received.
This month saw a real turn-around for a family of six from Egypt, including four children, who were seeking Iceland in Iceland but were facing deportation. This was despite having lived in the country for over two years, which prompted a considerable public backlash. As their deportation day approached, they went into hiding, and Icelanders began trolling the police with false leads about their whereabouts. Ultimately, they were granted asylum on humanitarian grounds near the end of the month.
The US Air Force was criticised for terrorising (or at least actively annoying) Akureyri residents by buzzing people’s homes and blasting their jets’ afterburners. A 5.7 quake hit Reykjanes again, which was felt across southwest Iceland. Most notable about this were the reactions of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Pirate Party MP Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, the former of whom shrugged it off while be interviewed live by the Washington Post, while the latter ran for cover.
A television commercial for telecom company Nova went viral for featuring several people in the nude of all kinds of body shapes. While nudity is not exactly taboo in Iceland, it was an uncommon marketing choice, and the video become a sensation in the international media. Meanwhile, Robert Burke, Admiral and Commander of the US Navy in Europe and Africa, discussed in an interview the possibility of locating a submarine search squadron in Iceland. Not exactly well received by a country that prides itself in not having a standing military.
2020 finished up much like it began: with a natural disaster. In this case, landslides in Seyðisfjörður destroyed 14 homes and prompted the evacuation of the entire town. Miraculously, no one was injured, and soon more residents were allowed to return home, although many others will have to wait for much longer before they can return. Finally, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson has become embroiled in a scandal for attending a party that was broken up by the police for violating coronavirus restrictions. Bjarni denies any wrongdoing at all, but it has prompted many members of Parliament to call for the dissolution of the government and early elections—both of which are not likely to happen.
Here’s hoping 2021 will bode better for Iceland, and all of us.
Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on tourism in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.
You can also check out our shop, loaded with books, apparel and other cool merch, that you can buy and have delivered right to your door.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!