Author Archives: Mark Sabbatini

REVEALED – POSITIVE COVID-19 TEST IN SVALBARD IN JAN. 2020! Kim Holmén’s positive test after China trip set off panic among officials, but negative follow-up led to ‘no cases’ claims

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“The alarm bells are ringing. Not just in Longyearbyen. They call in the Norwegian Institute of Public Health top management. And the Minister of Health. And the Foreign Minister. And the Prime Minister. That Norway’s first case of COVID-19 has occurred in little Svalbard, with its four doctors, is almost catastrophic.”

That top-level panic in January of 2020, several weeks before a global pandemic was declared, remained unknown to the public until this week when a newly published book revealed a prominent scientist in Longyearbyen tested positive for the virus after returning from a trip to China.

While their fears were averted when a follow-up test was negative – resulting on what an official called “the best exercise we have had” in preparation for outbreaks – it means the claim Svalbard is one of the few places on Earth with no COVID-19 cases is, while not a lie, a distortion of the truth.

NORWAY’S GOV’T GETS ‘GREEN’ LIGHT FOR CHANGE – WILL IT AFFECT SVALBARD? Labor to replace Conservatives after election, but local policies and Arctic oil drilling likely to go on

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Photo of incoming Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Longearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen by Marte Kristiansen / Norwegian Labor Party

Norway’s government is changing as the Labor Party is set to replace the Conservative-led coalition after last Monday’s election. But the governing of Svalbard likely won’t change in most matters despite climate and environmental issues dominating the campaign, according to local officials and others familiar with the archipelago’s politics.

Still, potential changes in environmental and/or economic actions such as oil exploration in the waters around Svalbard could have significant long-term impacts – but analysts are at polar opposites predicting if that will happen.

UPDATE – NO COVID-19 AT UNIS: Negative tests of suspected people means university will resume activities Thursday; caution urged since many reporting ‘common cold’ symptoms

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Photo courtesy of UNIS

Svalbard is still officially COVID-19 free.

An alert issued Tuesday about possible infections issued by The University Centre in Svalbard was cancelled on Wednesday when negative tests “and other information” indicatec it is safe to resume in-person classes and fieldwork. But officials said numerous locals are experiencing and reporting common cold symptoms, so the need to be cautious remains.

BREAKING – COVID-19 SUSPECTED AT UNIS: University says it will take 48 hours to know if ‘some of our students and colleagues’ are infected; fieldwork, in-person classes cancelled

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Photo courtesy of UNIS

The first cases of COVID-19 may have reached Svalbard, as multiple students and staff at The University Centre in Svalbard are suspected of being infected, according to an e-mail sent through the university system by health, safety and infrastructure director Fred S. Hansen on Tuesday evening.

It will be 48 hours after further tests are conducted Wednesday to know if the people in question have the virus, according to the e-mail. In-person classes and fieldwork are cancelled at least until Sunday.

POLAR BEARS TAKING HEAT BY INBREEDING: Loss of sea ice means Svalbard’s bears are keeping things ‘in the family,’ putting health and adaptability to changing conditions at risk

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Whether you call it “polar bear incest” (tabloids) or “reduction of genetic differentiation” (scientists) it means the same thing: more inbreeding among bears in Svalbard due to less sea ice is threatening their health and ability to adapt to things such as climate change.

THE RULES OF ATTRACTION (ARE CHANGING): Norway’s gov’t rewriting Svalbard’s tourism regulations to more clearly define access, guide qualifications, customers’ rights and more

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Photo of police contacting guides in the field courtesy of The Governor of Svalbard

“Getting away from it all” won’t be quite as much that in Svalbard soon as Norway’s government is planning a rewrite of tourism regulations for the archipelago that will likely include tighter control on access, new mandates for qualifying as a guide and changes in the legal rights of travellers that reflect higher standards on the mainland, according to a draft report released last week.

A SICK TALE OF SVALBARD TOURISM: 75% cancellation of tours, 58% reduction in guest nights in 2020 due to COVID-19 detailed in this passage from gov’t report about tourism rules

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Photo by L.P. Lorentz / Visit Svalbard

It’s a dramatic, concise and clear page that stands out strikingly in an 82-page report mostly filled with bureaucratic jumble about rewriting Svalbard’s tourism laws, summarizing officially the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on local tourism in 2020.

The big numbers: a 75 percent cancellation in tours and a 58 percent decrease in guest nights at accommodations. As for the cruise ships that have typically brought tens of thousands of visitors annually? A total of 10 ships carrying an average of 43 passengers managed to visit last year.

The figures, while based in part on the same data as a recent Statistics Norway report about Svalbard’s economy in 2020, are more dismal because they focus exclusively on tourism.

15% LESS REVENUE, 10% FEWER WORK HOURS IN 2020: Economic setbacks of COVID-19 in Svalbard wildly uneven; food/lodging drop 36%, leisure activities 38%

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The 15 percent loss of gross income and 10 percent loss of hours worked were bad for what would be a “normal” year, but hardly indicative of the “90 percent layoffs” and “99 percent loss of business” headlines Longyearbyen saw during the worst of the COVID-19 pamdemic in 2020.

But just as those scary headlines didn’t tell the full story, neither do the year-end cumulative figures for Svalbard as the loss of revenue and man hours varied widly by industry and settlement, according to a report released Tuesday by Statistics Norway.according to a report released Tuesday by Statistics Norway.

ALERT – PEOPLE TEST POSITIVE FOR COVID-19 AFTER LEAVING SVALBARD: Hospital says area is still officially case-free, but unknown if infected people had virus here

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Image of Isbjørnår from local COVID-19 safety poster by Haakon Sandvik

Svalbard remains among the few places on Earth with no official COVID-19 cases, but people traveling from the archipelago have tested positive for the virus soon after their departure, according to an alert issued Monday by Longyearbyen Hospital. Officials there said vaccinations will be administered to all groups that have not yet received them – notably newcomers and youths ages 16-17 – during the next month.

SVALBARD CHURCH CELEBRATES 100 YEARS: From its first days during Longyearbyen’s deadliest mining accident to explosive changes now, church has shaped and been shaped by town’s spiritual highs and lows – inside the building and out

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Exactly 100 years ago as of Saturday – on Aug 28, 1921 – Svalbard Church was consecrated after a mere 50 days of construction. A mere few months later the first ministerial act by its first priest was presiding over the burial when 27 men were killed in an explosion in the coal mine within several hundred meters of the new building.