Svalbard residents, particularly the high ratio of those in Longyearbyen exempt from unemployment/insurance benefits provided to those on the mainland due to the coronavirus pandemic, got an encouraging first step toward some type of assistance as Parliament on Thursday asked the government to come up with a plan specifically aiding those in the archipelago affected by the crisis.
However, what remains to be seen is how much and what type(s) of aid the government proposes, and if Parliament will actually approve the measures.
The request by Parliament came in a one-sentence statement on Thursday, a day after Longyearbyen’s municipal government requested 4.5 million kroner in aid to exempt residents. The city is also seeking compensation for any temporary reduction in municipal service fees – which could reduce residential rents, among other things and fund repair and other public works projects to be done by laid-off residents. Such funds could total tens of millions of kroner monthly.
“The Parliament asks the government to prepare a time-limited crisis package for Svalbard because of the consequences the coronavirus has had and will have for the settlement in Svalbard,” the statement requests.
Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen told Svalbardposten it is a plus the request will be handled by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security since it is familiar with Svalbard’s unique laws because it has administrative oversight of the archipelago. Maria Aasen-Svendsrud, a Parliament member who is part of the Justice Committee and – like Olsen – a Labor Party member – told the newspaper it’s too soon to discuss if the regulations themselves should be changed.
“The most important thing now is to concentrate on the acute challenges associated with the corona outbreak,” she said. “In the long run, we may need to discuss different regulations that apply to Svalbard and whether they are suitable for tackling a different Svalbard community where the main industry is no longer state-owned mining but tourism and the new challenges this entails.”
More than 35 percent of local residents are non-Norwegian – up from 14 percent about a decade ago – due to the collapse of mining and rise of tourism. Those from non-EU/EEA countries, a majority at many tourism and other service industry companies, are ineligible for the benefits and health insurance provided to laid-off workers.
Local tourism and city officials estimate 90 percent of local tourism workers have been or shortly will be at least laid-off and the crisis will last will past the spring and summer seasons that account for the dominant portion of annual economic activity. The overall workforce numbers are also expected to be devastating as many stores, cafes and other businesses have closed temporarily or are operating limited hours, as have a number of other industrial and public-service entities.