Norway’s response to Covid-19 and the Janus face of Nordic trust

It took a while, but by now most have realised, at least in Europe, that the current drama is the most serious global event we have experienced in our lifetime. Using the term “crisis” about the condition into which we have unwittingly stumbled is almost an understatement. There are more than seven and a half billion of us, and very few, if any, are completely unaffected.

The global death toll from Covid-19 has surpassed 300,000 at the time of writing. Shops have been forced to close, the freedom of mobility has been severely restricted, large corporations are threatened by bankruptcy and smaller ones vanish; mortgage payments are overdue, students are deprived of their exams, precarious workers in the global south become even more precarious; and people are instructed to keep at least a metre or two away from each other.

No more handshakes; no more friendly hugs. Our nerves are raw, and many see clearly (or dimly) for the first time how the global system works with its billions of invisible filaments connecting us to each other, through chains of production, distribution and communication which are never stronger than their weakest link.

Trust and crisis

It is typically during crises that the cohesiveness of a society, be it based on trust or fear, is brought to the test. In societies facing constant crises, generalised trust is generally low.

This also holds for societies with huge inequalities – in the mid-19th century, Charles Darwin and his young wife Emma fled London for Kent during workers' uprisings, and one may also think of societies where the rich take shelter in gated communities out of fear for the poor, and the poor resent the rich because they feel the injustices in their bodies.

The Nordic countries are always near or at the top of quantitative surveys about trust. Two months into the state of exception brought about to contain the virus, we may start ask to what extent the proverbial Nordic trust is being eroded by the crisis.

There is a great deal of accumulated trust across this peaceful, well-organised corner of the Global North, but this precious resource can take lifetimes to build and moments to destroy. Up here, people were unprepared for this situation, never having experienced anything even remotely resembling the current situation of decline and uncertainty before.

In diversified, indeed increasingly superdiverse societies, questions pertaining to trust have been at the forefront for social engineers and social scientists for some years now. International surveys suggest that there are important differences within the Global North in this respect: Scandinavians typically trust other people, while Americans typically do not.

But we need to distinguish between two main forms of trust: you can trust a who and you can trust a what. Perhaps you live in a society where you assume that other people are OK, but the government is not. The inverse is also possible: you can rely on the government, but not on your neighbours, and indeed, you depend on the government to protect you against the suspicious people with whom you share a social space.

In a period of crisis and upheaval, both kinds of trust are put to the test. Governments around the world have imposed comparable restrictions and rules to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, sometimes at gunpoint, sometimes through avuncular admonitions.

Norway’s response

Let me now take a look at Norway, with a few sideways glances to other countries. The Norwegian government moved quickly to contain Covid-19 and imposed strict measures (including quarantines for people who had been abroad and the closure of educational institutions), now followed by a phased reopening with a strong emphasis on safety.

Compared to the other major Nordic countries such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden, Norway has the lowest death toll and the second lowest number of recorded cases. However, only with hindsight will it be possible to conclude whether the strategy has been successful.

In Norway, the dugnad is widely considered a characteristic of the national character, indeed to the extent that it was designated the “national word” in listener's poll by a popular radio programme (Nitimen) some years ago. Dugnad refers to unpaid, collective, cooperative work where every member of a community is expected to participate, regardless of their social position.

Typical dugnads would be maintenance and minor repairs to nursery infrastructure carried out by parents, usually on a Saturday, flea markets and hot dog sales by the parents of children active in sports or marching bands, beautification of common spaces in residential areas and so on. Of course, similar practices exist elsewhere, but to Norwegians, the dugnad, apart from being a local term which is hard to translate, is a symbol of egalitarianism and the kind of solidarity mythically associated with rural communities.

This spring, politicians have repeatedly invoked the term nasjonal dugnad to mobilise their constituencies, the qualifier nasjonal suggesting that the nation as such was to act as a supraindividual subject – “a collective of individuals and a collective individual”, as anthropologist Louis Dumont once described the modern nation – in order to get out of the crisis.

As a matter of fact, it seems as if the rhetoric has been taken at face value, making people go out of their way to follow instructions from their leaders. This in turn confirms research which indicates that trust in institutions and in the state is more deeply entrenched in Norway than in most other countries.

A couple of brief examples may illustrate this point. In early April, a smartphone app enabling the authorities to trace people's movements, offering security against contamination as a compensation, was launched.

Within less than a week, more than 1.4 million Norwegians (out of a total population of 5.5 million) had voluntarily downloaded the app, trusting that the government would not misuse the electronic traces they left behind, and signalling that they, like all responsible citizens, would contribute to the nasjonal dugnad. It should be noted, however, that many who did download the app did not activate it.

A month earlier, the government placed a temporary ban on travel to private cabins and second homes outside the municipal areas where people lived. In a country where a very large proportion of the middle class customarily, and with religious fervour, spends Easter in their mountain cabin to eat oranges and go cross-country skiing, the cabin ban could have been seen as an affront and a provocation from an insensitive, authoritarian government.

The reactions were nevertheless very understanding. A survey suggested that more than eighty per cent of the population approved of the cabin ban, while only a small minority actively disapproved.

The tenor of the coronavirus dugnad can also be observed in other settings. For example, a protracted and animated controversy around jogging has unfolded on a variety of media platforms since the end of March.

One view is that jogging is a healthy and meaningful form of recreation in a situation where fitness centres and other public venues are closed. The opposing position amounts to the view that joggers are inconsiderate and selfish when they insist on spewing droplets into the air while passing peaceful walkers, with or without baby prams, on narrow paths. The latter view embodies the spirit of equality which rejects privilege and differential treatment.

Although personal networks are no less important in Norway than elsewhere, not least in the labour market and the economy, their significance tends to be undercommunicated, and international surveys on perceptions of corruption indicate that Norwegians believe it to be negligible there.

I have mentioned the concept of the dugnad and the high level of trust, which applies both to generalised interpersonal trust and trust in impersonal bureaucratic institutions.

Both may be understood by reference to an element in the Norwegian self-understanding which is considered less attractive, namely Janteloven, the Law of Jante. Its ten commandments were formulated in a 1933 novel by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose (1899–1965), and essentially states that nobody has the right to think that he or she is better than others. Widely held to be a flaw in the Scandinavian national characters, the Law of Jante has connotations of envy, conformism and petit-bourgeois prejudice.

However, understood in a different light, the Law of Jante also, albeit indirectly, admonishes people to show solidarity and work for the common good rather than pursuing selfish desires.

In Norwegian literature, the character who most famously violated the Law of Jante avant la lettre was Ibsen's Peer Gynt, a man who would have been unwilling to follow quarantine regulations, and would have not cared much about protecting high-risk groups from the virus.

The Law of Jante can thus be seen, contrary to its author's intention, as a celebration of the ethos of equality which is fundamental to Norwegian society, notwithstanding the actual and growing social inequalities.

The nasjonal dugnad declared on 12 March 2020 emphasised that all had to make sacrifices. The emphasis was not on an active performance of duties, but rather on the obligation to not to do certain things, such as hugging and going to the office. As parents told their teenage children: it is not for yourself, but out of consideration for your grandparents, that you cannot go out and have fun with your friends.

Why do Norwegians trust?

To conclude, let me list four possible explanations, none of them mutually excluding, for the high level of trust in Norway and for the country's ability to mobilise the positive side of the Law of Jante in this time of crisis – which has enabled the authorities to implement strict measures by pleading, rather than threatening.

First, social distances are short. Most people know someone who knows someone who knows the prime minister. High and low are connected through just a few removes. This implies a modest distance between the governing and the governed. One outcome of this is a strong collective identity.

Secondly, Norway was urbanised later than other Western European countries, and rural values such as conformity and equality linger on. Social control between strangers can therefore be effective, as when people chide each other for not keeping social distance in shops.

Thirdly, the population is relatively small, which, combined with the first two points, inevitably leads to a high degree of homogeneity. Thus we all become each other's metaphorical neighbours.

Fourthly, integration between state and citizens is strong and largely harmonious. It is a common view among Norwegians that the state can offer services they need, and that the police can come to their assistance should the need arise. This would not be the case for an African American in St Louis or a freethinker in Pakistan.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the Janus face of the Law of Jante continues to reveal itself from both sides.

It does create social cohesion and solidarity, but masks inequality, and it leads to a form of social control that creates a strong pressure to conform, vigilante tendencies among people patrolling boundaries, informal sanctions, and most importantly, the alienation and partial exclusion of ethnic and other minorities.

The ongoing discussions about whether it is appropriate to run, sweating and panting, past young mothers on the footpath, or whether thy neighbour is a bad person if he forgets himself and coughs into his fist, or offers a handshake, is suggestive of a society of potential informers with little leeway or flexibility for behaviour that does not conform to the majority’s norms.

We have then moved full circle back to the Law of Jante as originally intended by Sandemose, a society where Big Brother needs not raise a hand, assured that the little brothers and sisters carry out the job of keeping the boundaries of the normative structure firm and crisp.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo. His books include Globalization: The Key Concepts (2006/2014), Overheating (2016) and Boomtown (2018).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times’ editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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