With many worldwide facing unique catastrophic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the most severe in Svalbard may be the high ratio of non-Norwegian residents and businesses ineligible for unemployment assistance, health insurance and other assistance being offered by Norway (links to left are official details for each in English) – especially due to the tourism-dominated economy that is almost entirely at a halt and may be for months.
But while many residents are likely to face coping with answers of “no” during the crisis, local government and businesses leaders are attempting to seek solutions through community-level efforts as well as the policy-level changes that may go unheard at the national level.
And, of course, there is considerable confusion about who is eligible for existing assistance given the huge number of nationalities residing in Svalbard.
Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, in response to an online question from a resident about those exempt from national-level assistance, stated it is a concern being pursed at the national level as well as locally.
“We are working on it and have requested that this be brought back into the discussions which are now going on centrally,” he wrote.
In a separate message posted at the city’s Facebook page Tuesday afternoon, Olsen stated official are trying to address two primary concerns.
“One is the large group of foreign workers who for various reasons fall outside the unemployment benefit. But it is time consuming and we do not have all the answers now. In any case, any solutions will depend on decisions made by national authorities. Our job is mainly to disseminate relevant information to these. At the same time, it is important that local decisions are made that reinforce the message. Efforts are being made to get such a decision in place shortly.”
“The second is our local opportunity to limit costs for the individual person. Here we work specifically to look at the Longyearbyen Local Council’s fee regulations, and how these can be used as an immediate measure. First, we need to get an overview of the financial consequences, while drawing up guidelines. We are also in dialogue with national authorities so that our expenses are included in the national crisis package.
I realize that this is very demanding for everyone. We are constantly working towards the goal of solving all the challenges that hit us.”
Similar pleas by local officials to national authorities were made late last week by the city and The Governor of Svalbard about continuation of domestic travel during the quarantine period since there were no known cases in the archipelago and guest facilities were deemed inadequate to house the large number of tourists usually visiting during peak season. The Norwegian government agreed quickly to ban locals and visitors under quarantine, and return those here to the mainland.
The Svalbard Guide Association, in a letter to Svalbardposten and published on the association’s website, details the range of problems employees and companies are facing that threaten their existence in the short- and long-term future.
“What we worry for the most right now is that many guides, and others working in the tourism sector, will end up without any unemployment benefits and/or salary in the near future,” the letter notes. “This in turn will result in an exodus of guides from Svalbard, since apartment rental prices are sky high and cannot be paid for from savings alone. Many guides are also completely dependent on their seasonal salary to even be allowed to stay on Svalbard. They will soon be forced to leave the island and find jobs elsewhere in the world, forming new ties and losing their connection to Svalbard. This will result in companies having to recruit and train guides from scratch, which will necessitate a lot of time and money, when companies will only just be getting over the Corona crisis.”
Among the immunerable locals working freelance and at small companies is Charly KatBat at Camp Bolterdalen, which remains operating but with little hope of recovery during the spring season, who on Monday announced a “Freelancers of Svalbard Covid-19 crisis GoFundMe had been established by a friend.
“Due to crisis I had to live in a tent, at -30°C or move houses every few weeks. I’ve had frostbite, terrible fevers and managed to work so hard, that I collapsed in the dogyard twice already,” KatBat wrote on the page, describing “normal” life before the crisis. Toward the end she adds “Svalbard is currently preparing for a total lockdown, I can only hope that our economy, mostly based on tourism, will survive this. Please, once the travel ban has been lifted, consider visiting us and see for yourself how beautiful this island is.”
Large companies and their employees – many of whom may not qualify for national aid – are obviously affected as well. Svalbardposten reported Tuesday that Hurtigruten Svalbard, the largest local tour operator, is laying off 100 employees temporarily since spring activities have virtually ceased and the summer season remains uncertain. Hurtigruten Svalbard’s Vebjørn Andresen destination director, told the newspaper efforts are being made to address the hardship ineligible employees are facing.
“Unfortunately the temporary layoffs hit many of our employees and many are completely without rights,” he said. “This is now our highest priority; we are working to find good solutions to this in order to take care of those that apply in the best possible way. As it is known, living on Svalbard is expensive, among other things. We are working in parallel with the authorities to try to help those affected.”
Spitzbergen Adventures AS posted a plea on Facebook for one of its exempt guides now trying to provide tours privately, including a list of tours and prices as well as custom opportunities.
“We want to keep him in the most work possible during this period,” the company stated.