The world’s northernmost town, one of about ten places on Earth with no COVID-19 cases, had its first death directly linked to the pandemic on Friday. But it wasn’t due to illness – it was a fatal attack by a polar bear on the manager of the local campsite as he lay in his tent, who because of extreme ban on all non-residents this spring was unable to come up and build an electric warning fence around the site that likely would have saved his life.
Johan (“Job”) Jacobus Kootte, 38, is merely the most tragic of the many life-shattering costs Longyearbyen is suffering during the pandemic. As the primary settlement in the archipelago, halfway between the North Pole and mainland Norway, officials and residents are facing a non-stop battle to keep the virus from reaching here due to a remoteness and lack of medical/emergency resources to cope with an outbreak.
But that meant a complete barricade of all outsiders – and exiling those here at the time – and essentially shutting down the entire economy for months. Because Svalbard’s remoteness from the rest of Norway is legal as well as geographical, it is not a part of the country’s welfare system that provides generous unemployment/insurance benefits, so a huge percentage of Longyearbyen’s 2,433 residents suddenly found themselves facing government-enforced exile as well.
Furthermore, the number and ways of non-illness afflictions here is as unique and far-reaching as the area itself, such as scores of dogs who faced execution by their owners who operate dogsledding tours since there is no income from visitors to feed the canines.
The world surpassed 25 million COVID-19 cases on Sunday, which combined with nearly 850,000 deaths is causing many to cast harsh judgements on “reopening” proponents who say the economic costs of the pandemic are greater than the lives at stake. But in Longyearbyen, which has suffered by far the worst economic costs of any town in Norway, the price is far beyond economic and jobs, putting in question the future of a community already suffering crippling tragedy and setbacks the past few years due to climate change and other hardships.
Kootte, an Amsterdam resident, was like citizens from more than 50 countries worldwide seeking their vision of an Arctic adventure by living in a community under a unique “open borders” policy. He worked at Longyearbyen Camping during the summer of 2018 and was scheduled to return again this year in March to prepare for the scheduled opening of the campsite in late spring.
One of his first tasks was building the electric three-wire fence around the campsite with the supplies that arrived early that month. Historically the campsite didn’t consider polar bears a significant risk to guests, and there were no human/bear confrontations in its 35-year existence, but an increasing number of bears observed near town in recent years plus a large increase in tourism altered that thinking.
But Norway closed its borders to nearly all foreigners on March 13 after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic. In Svalbard the shutdown measures went well beyond the mainland’s, as even Norwegians who were not registered residents who forced to leave a few days later.
A few workers in “essential” occupations were allowed to stay or travel here, but Kootte certainly didn’t meet that criteria at the time. By the time he arrived it was too warm to build the fence in the now-thawed soil.
“(Koottee) would have traveled up north (in March) to built the fence,” Michelle van Dijk, the campsite’s general manager, explained. “But because of closed borders (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) he was not allowed to. Once the borders opened the soil had thawed, therefore the machine for putting the poles cannot drive over it.”
Shortly before 4 a.m. last Friday the bear attacked. Kootte was fatally injured before other people at the campsite shot the bear, which fled and died itself about 100 yards away in the parking lot of Svalbard Airport.
The death sparked global news coverage and outrage, largely focusing on why humans are allowed to intrude the native habitat of polar bears, a protected species in Svalbard. It’s a familiar debate after human/bear encounters resulting injury or death, which inevitably attract widespread publicity. But it’s just one of many contentious issues among locals during a period of forced and harsh transition, made all the worse by the virus in recent months.
In terms of simple numbers, perhaps the most eye-opening are the 90-99 percent loss of tourism income during the spring months that are the peak period each year, accompanied by a 90 percent layoff of employees in that and associated industries. Whereas mining historically was Longyearbyen’s primary employer, the near-shutdown of operations here beginning five years ago due to global market conditions means tourism now accounts for more than 40 percent of all jobs – up from less than 15 percent a decade ago – and is seen as perhaps the primary the future economic cornerstone of the community.
“The change in society that will come in the wake of this is very disturbing,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen stated in a Facebook message earlier this month during a visit by central government officials to hear pleas from locals – some saying their businesses are literally days from bankruptcy – for help. “Not only in the number of lost jobs and economy, but Longyearbyen will shortly also appear as less attractive without an active and robust travel life.”
The Norwegian government proved reluctant to offer emergency help to many of the residents most affected, other than some short-term financial assistance in late spring – and a recently announced three million kroner in grants to send unemployed foreigners back to their homelands beginning Sept. 1. But it is investing considerable effort and resources in keeping Svalbard virus-free.
Longyearbyen Hospital, while equipped and staffed by experts for Arctic-related emergencies such as extreme cold exposure, cannot handle many routine medical functions such as childbirth (expecting mothers must go to the mainland a few weeks before their scheduled delivery date), let alone a virus where a single case might spread like wildfire among close-knit neighbors. Furthermore, with mainland Norway’s facilities trying to cope with the outbreak for people there, resources such as testing and treatment equipment – and air ambulances – were not a practical option for an archipelago where both distance and unreliable weather conditions year-round are hindrances.
So when a filmmaker from Germany flew to Norway a couple of weeks ago he was allowed entry to the mainland, but not Svalbard where he hoped to spend several days on a project, merely because he caught a connecting flight in Sweden, subjecting him to the heightened local crackdown measures.
Hence Svalbard remains on an exclusive “top 10” places on Earth with no COVID-19 cases, according to global health organizations. There are actually 12 of the U.N.’s 193 recognized countries classified as virus-free, most of them tiny islands in the south Pacific, but essentially all expert dismiss the official accounts by North Korea and Turkmenistan.
The Diplomat, in a no-joking article April 1, noted that, contrary to many media reports, the government as of that date had not banned the word “coronavirus.” But non-official reports of cases there – combined with a massive outbreak in neighboring Iran, cases in Afghanistan, and the emergence of a growing case load in other Central Asian states – make the government’s claim implausible. North Korea is also accused of playing “hide and seek” with its virus claims.
The other official virus-free countries as of Aug. 27 are the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Tonga, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu and Nauru.