From Iceland — Chief Epidemiologist Criticised For Remarks On Refugees And The Coronavirus

Chief Epidemiologist Criticised For Remarks On Refugees And The Coronavirus

Published June 7, 2021

Andie Sophia Fontaine
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Chief epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason made statements regarding refugees and the coronavirus that some 19 organisations in Iceland have said are misleading and could fan the flames of prejudice against refugees.

Last Friday, seven people who were not in quarantine at the time were diagnosed with the coronavirus. Vísir later reported that Þórólfur disclosed that all of the infected were refugees in Iceland.

Commenting on the matter, Þórólfur said in part: “There are all kinds of points of view that one has heard that exist in this group. These are naturally people who often have different views on, for example, Covid and infectious diseases and vaccinations. It’s hard to approach it from that angle. There may also be views that [getting vaccinated] could change their status on international protection here, that the government could then take action. This is very complicated and it is difficult to say what is what in this. But it is clear that we have groups that have different views and opinions on what we are doing, which can make things a little more difficult for us, naturally.”

Who’s leading the anti-vax movement again?

No Borders Iceland issued a statement, signed by 18 other organisations, which strongly criticised these remarks.

“It is to be expected that refugees will have all kinds of views on COVID-19, vaccinations and infectious diseases, as this is an enormously large and diverse group of people, just like Europeans,” the statement reads. “Two things in Þórólfur’s argument are particularly worrying; firstly, to speak in such a way that all asylum seekers and refugees, or at least a large proportion of them, share views on COVID-19 and vaccinations that conflict with ‘our’ views (whoever these ‘we’ are). Secondly, it is very worrying and in fact a misconception to attribute to one group the ability to have ‘different views and opinions on what we are doing’ in terms of infection control and vaccinations when it is clear that in almost all Western countries, groups of people, most of whom were born and raised in the West, have been involved in protests, campaigns and various misrepresentations about vaccinations, COVID-19 and infectious disease prevention. For example, it is almost exclusively white Icelanders who lead such a group in Iceland.”

Get screened = get deported

No Borders also underlined other reasons why refugees may be reluctant to be screened. As reported, refugees who do refuse to take a pre-deportation screening have been evicted from refugee housing, cut off from food stipends (those applying for asylum are not legally permitted to work) and have been denied medical attention.

“It is worth pointing out, as the Epidemiologist himself briefly points out in the aforementioned Vísir article, that some asylum seekers have reason to fear that a negative result from coronavirus screening will lead to them being deported,” the statement continues. “Asylum seekers who have so far refused screening for deportation have been completely asymptomatic and have had no reason to fear being infected with the virus.

“Vulnerable to increased prejudice and exclusion”

“If it is the case that some of the refugees and asylum seekers distrust the authorities and do not dare to rely on coronarvirus screening to be carried out with their interests in mind, we, the undersigned, urge the epidemiologist and his colleagues to have an open conversation with refugees and asylum seekers in Iceland. Just like the other inhabitants of the country, and find out together how the interests of all who inhabit the country, including refugees and asylum seekers, can be safeguarded against COVID-19.”

In closing, No Borders and the undersigned implored Þórólfur to apologise, and for immigration authorities to stop putting refugees at risk.

“We call on the Directorate of Immigration to immediately stop all deportations of asylum seekers and resume services to homeless asylum seekers, as it is clear that homelessness and poverty are a major risk factor when it comes to personal and social infection control,” the statement closes. “We also challenge Þórólfur Guðnason to apologize for his aforementioned remarks and to take the utmost care when it comes to generalizing about the views of certain groups in society, especially groups that are already vulnerable to increased prejudice and exclusion.”

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