Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Coronavirus, foreigners and Air BnB

Last week, an Australian tourist died at a hospital in north Iceland. He was admitted when seriously ill, and it turned out that he had the COVID-19 virus but didn’t how typical signs of it. Initially, hospital staff said it was unlikely that he died of the virus but they have now changed their mind, saying that he DID in fact have a severe case of pneumonia, which virus victims may get if badly affected.

The tourist had been travelling around Iceland for a week with his partner. Was he aware of where to go for help? Has anyone has looked into the proportion of “foreigners” and tourists globally who may not know what to do/ where to go in crisis situations, let alone have constant access to hand sanitisers or soap. (Rough sleepers also are unlikely to have access to hand sanitisers or soap, let alone being able to self-isolate away from others, but that’s another story.)

If staying in hotels or guesthouses, the staff should be able to help tourists in trouble, telling them where to find help, etc. But in the case of flats such as Air BnB, there is no guarantee that any such information would be available for guests.

And migrants who do not speak the language of their host country – for instance, many Polish people in Iceland do not speak either Icelandic or English – may also have trouble finding out about latest developments such as bans on gatherings over a certain number, or whether or not to send their children to school. The Icelandic website that gives up-to-date information on the virus, covid.is, is in Icelandic, English and Polish, but is not much use for speakers of other languages.

Although this blog was sparked by COVID-19, it is actually applicable to any health crisis. Crucial information is often not available for everyone, and in some cases elderly family members come to join their family but do not go to school or work and have limited social opportunities and may only speak their heritage language – in which vital information may not be available.

Update 23 March: The Icelandic media reported today that in Sweden,  out of the 27 fatalities due to COVD-19, 6 occurred in people with a Somalian background. The Swedish association of Somalian doctors said that lack of information in Somalian had undoubtedly been partly responsible for the high number of fatalities.

 

Is the U.S. military on its way back to Iceland?

The U.S. military left their military base in Iceland in September 2006. With that, the last vestiges of a military presence in Iceland disappeared, as Iceland does not have an army of its own.

But since 2016 (if not before) the American military has surreptitiously been carrying out various activities in the security zone of the former base, including submarine surveillance. And that same year, the U.S. military asked the State Treasury for more finance for submarine monitoring and other projects.

More details have emerged from time to time about this funding, and I wrote about it in an article and a blog. At the same time, there has been daily military presence at the former base.

Now it has emerged (Icelanders can read about it here) that the U.S. military want to set up basic facilities for about 1000 military personnel in the security zone, along with a zone with appropriate facilities where planes carrying “dangerous goods”, such as bombs and fuel, could land.

Why? It sounds very suspicious to me.

A friend in the U.S. warned me last year that Iceland would have to be careful that the U.S. did not start using the situation for “quiet back-room deals”

In 2016 I published an article that indicated, amongst other things, renewed military presence in Iceland.

Here is part of what I wrote:

… earlier this year (2016), the U.S. requested the use of a hangar for submarine monitoring, so they could fly over the sea and detect submarines using sonar.

Then in June the U.S. Department of Defense met with the Icelandic Foreign Affairs Minister, Lilja Alfredsdottir, about wanting to strengthen cooperation with the U.S. military once more, because the security situation had changed since 2006.

Then in July 2016, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a report in which they openly suggest: “NATO can optimize its ASW [anti-submarine warfare] posture to ensure that the right capabilities are in the right places at the right time by reopening Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland and encouraging Norway to reclaim and reopen its submarine support facility at Olavsvern.”

The same article also details various activities related to the NATO agreement which are permitted.

Note that the CSIS link no longer works, and that Lilja Alfredsdottir is now Education Minister; Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson is now the Foreign Affairs Minister. I don’t know anything about Olavsvern, though I just found this article which again is based on the CSIS report.

Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s Left-Green Prime Minister whose party is opposed to NATO and military operations in general, says that the decisions were made before she became PM and she cannot do anything about it.

Nevertheless, many people are unhappy about the situation.

 

 

 

Weapons carrier wants to fly budget flights from Iceland

Two prospective new airlines have surfaced over the last few days in Iceland, which both intend to pick up the pieces from the now-defunct WOW Air and offer low-cost flights from Iceland to Europe and the US.

The first to be announced has the tentative working name of WAB – We are Back – and intends to fly to 14 US and European cities. Two ex-WOW executives are involved, and funding is mostly being provided by an Irish investment fund, Avianta Capital, which is owned by the daughter of one of the owners of Ryan Air, Aislinn Whittley-Ryan. You can read more about it here.

Then last night it was announced that a US company had bought most of what’s left of WOW Air, and had also requested to use the hangars previously used for WOW planes. Initially the name of the company was not revealed, but now it turns out that the company is probably Oasis Aviation Services. Like WAB, the idea is to run a low-cost airline.

Oasis specializes in transporting weapons from the US to Africa through its hub in Djibouti. Not nice! Their website calls it “Internationalist Air Cargo – Specialist in US Military Cargo”.

Oasis is owned by Michele Ballarin, a wealthy woman with links to Somalia who is also known there as Amira Ballarin, meaning Princess Ballarin. Besides breeding Lippizaner horses there, she has also been involved in many other activities, to various degrees of legality. You can read about her activities here.

Since WOW stopped flying at the end of March, tourist numbers have dropped dramatically – which is not surprising, as most people would have booked their summer holidays by then and those who had booked flights to Iceland with WOW would have had to rebook with another airline. With limited seat availability compared to the number who wanted to come, flight prices increased phenomenally and no doubt became out of reach for the average traveller. Tourist operators are worried.

Whether both airlines will eventually be flying to and from Iceland remains to be seen – I personally doubt that the market can support both of them  – but I would much prefer WAB to the Oasis lot.

Update 7 September: It was announced yesterday that Ballarin’s lot will start flying from October to the USA (Washington Dulles airport), under the trade name WOW. Later they will fly to other cities.

Update 5 November: Well, forget the September update. Flying to the US will start next year but they will start flying to six European cities this month. They had a press conference this morning and are calling the new airline Play . Their website (which is primitive at the moment) is here.

 

 

First fin whales killed off Iceland

Kristjan Loftsson, the man behind Iceland’s fin-whale hunts, originally said that his two whaling boats, Hvalur 8 and 9, would head off to sea around June 10, so a protest was organized that day in front of Hvalur 8, which was still moored in the Reykjavik harbour opposite the whale-watching boats. But nothing happened that day, and Loftsson said that there would be a delay before the boats went out.

Hvalur 9 is still in the slip, but Hvalur 8 sneaked out of the harbour on Wednesday night with its GPS device switched off so the boat could not be traced using the Marine Traffic app. They returned late on Thursday night with the first whale, then went out again and returned with the second whale early this morning. They are allowed to catch 161 whales this season, plus some of the unused quota from last year, totalling 190. The hunting season is around 100 days so I doubt they’ll catch all of them.

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A page has been set up on Facebook called Stop Whaling in Iceland to publicize protests.

Other than watching when the boats go in and out of the whaling station at Hvalfjordur, it is nigh impossible to keep track of how many whales have been killed as Hvalur hf, the company behind the whaling operations, does not have a website and although the first whale killing is usually reported, this does not always happen. The same goes for the minke-whale killing operation: they used to have a website which was updated every so often with “another two whales have been killed” and the like, but their webpage no longer exists, so it will be very difficult to keep track of whales killed by them. Jon Gunnarsson, the father of the man behind the minke whale killings, is a member of the Althing (Icelandic parliament) for the Independent Party, and Throstur Sigmundsson, the husband of Progressive Party MP Silja Dögg Gudmundsdottir, carried  out minke whaling in 2016 when the boat he bought came with a minke whale quota, so there are strong minke whaling interests within the Icelandic Althing.

There is an article about Kristjan Loftsson in the latest issue of the newspaper Stundin. As always, Loftsson could not be contacted, but it was interesting all the same. Loftsson is no longer connected to the fishing giant HB Grandi so cannot use profits from there to subsidize whaling operations.

The Icelandic government appears split on this issue, and has requested a report from the Institute of Economics on the economic ramifications of fin whaling and its effects on industry and another report from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute on the food needs of whales and their importance in the marine biota off Iceland.

I have no faith in either of these, see the article I wrote a number of years ago which criticizes a previous report by the Institute of Economics, partly for its assumptions that whales kill fish that could be caught for eating. Another article I wrote last year describes the importance of whale faeces for fish populations.

Information on the social impact of whaling has also been requested.

Icelandic bank officials and their prison sentences

Many people looked enviously at Iceland after the 2008 bank crisis when, at the instigation of Eva Joly, a Special Prosecutor was appointed to look into the misdemeanours of high-ranking banking officials and the part they had to play in the bank crash.

The process has now basically been completed, although six cases are still before the courts and some bank officials have appealed their sentences to the Supreme Court or even to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

All in all, 36 people have been convicted for a total of 96 years in prison. Of these, 11 received a total of 36 years prison for cases related to Kaupthing (now Arion bank), 7 received a total of 25.25 years in cases related to Glitnir (now Islandsbanki) and 7 received 13 years in total for offences related to Landsbanki.

Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson from Kaupthing and Larus Welding from Glitnir received three convictions for a total of 7 years and 6 years respectively, while Magnus Gudmundsson from Glitnir got 6 years. All three have cases pending. The penalty framework for economic crime cases /bank crash cases is 6 years, which many people feel is unfair as it means that additional sentences do not incur severe penalties – unlike sentences for prisoners in general.

Note that the bank prisoners have been somewhat demanding, to put it mildly, wanting wine with their meals, horse-riding lessons and the like. However, their requests have not been met. And another Kaupthing prisoner, Sigurdur Einarsson, crashed a helicopter when taking a client on a sightseeing trip one weekend while at the halfway house for prisoners. Say no more.

 

Iceland elects corrupt politicians yet again

Eight parties won seats in the Icelandic parliamentary elections on Saturday, held 364 days after the previous elections. The run-up was short and there was little discussion of issues – I think that many politicians thought that general public would remember their last promises – and the campaign revolved more around personalities. 63 seats were contested.

Despite the Left-Greens having a marginal lead early on, Bjarni Ben used his 4th life (like cats, I’m convinced he has nine lives and unfortunately hasn’t used them all up yet) to bring his party to 25.25% share of the vote and 16 elected candidates, whereas the Left-Greens got 11 people in and 16.89% of the vote.

Three weeks before the election, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson of Wintris fame, who was booted out of his Prime Minister role after the Panama papers interview and who had done virtually zilch after he lost his position as leader of the Progressive Party, formed his own party, the Middle Party, and got 7 people in, some of whom had been representing his old party. He will, I suspected, remain alienated from other political parties with the exception of Bjarni Ben’s crowd, who have no scruples. But now it appears he is in league with a new “populist” party, the People’s Party, that got in with 4 candidates on the basis of working on behalf of the elderly and disabled. Some of their policies had been somewhat spurious but I suspect that at least some of the people who voted for them did so on the basis that they were not SDG or BB.

The party that walked out of the last coalition government, Bright Future, paid for their allegiance to BB with a disastrous election result of 1.22%, and at the time the last coalition was formed only 25% of BF voters were happy with the idea. Those people switched their allegiance to other parties this time round – and the same thing will happen to Inga Saeland and her People’s Party.

The other coalition party with BB, Vidreisn/Reform, also lost seats in this election. On the other hand, the Social Democrats (who had also had a bad experience of working with BB’s party prior to the bank crash) rose up from the ashes to get 12.05% of the vote and 7 seats this time instead of scraping in with 3 like last time.

The Pirates lost 4 seats and now have 6 – they admit that they probably forgot to talk about issues. Their main issue was the need for a new constitution, which is important but obviously not enough to win supporters. SDG’s old party, the Progressive Party, got 8 seats and 10.71% of the vote. As part of the opposition over the last year, they had become (temporarily at least) left-wing.

Katrin Jakobsdottir from the Left-Greens wants to have a coalition government made up of the four parties who were in opposition last time around, i.e. Progressive Party, SDP, Pirates and Left-Greens, and will have a one-seat majority. BB of course wants to form a government and so does SDG, but both parties will have difficulty finding enough parties willing to work with them due to the corruption scandals of their leaders. (Interestingly, the investigative paper Stundin had done an article on how parties would handle corruption and two of the three parties which didn’t reply were those of BB and SDG – which are precisely the parties that need to address the issue the most.)

Although Iceland has proportional representation, its voting system is somewhat complicated so that the PP got more seats than the SDP despite having a smaller proportion of voters electing it. This is something that a new constitution should address.

 

 

 

Foreign news rarely reliable

Foreign news may actually be reliable sometimes, but I suspect it’s either because the news is very short or because a foreign correspondent (or “stringer” as they seem to be called) actually lives in the place where the reporting is from. Basically, reporters who get their news from elsewhere, or from an agency, don’t have the background to be able to understand the complexities of issues they’re writing about, or don’t know that the underlying premises are wrong. Or they take things out of context.

For instance, sometimes the Icelandic Foreign Affairs Ministry and other institutions have had to spend considerable time correcting incorrect information after inaccurate articles. Such articles come from “foreign news” journalists of national overseas news media, who may be able to report trivial news like the Icelandic president liking pineapple on his pizza but who do not have the background to report on issues such as Icelanders’ views towards EU membership, the housing crisis or other significant issues. It’s not just what IS reported that matters. What is left out, intentionally or unintentionally, is also important (that statement is actually valid for all reporting).

A friend in Kenya pointed out inaccuracies in how the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service incorrectly reported the latest elections in Kenya, and it’s well known that bad news sells, so that if a news agency journalist reports violence at a demonstration, that will be reported worldwide, whereas usually violence is only a very small part of demonstrations. During the pots and pans revolution in Iceland in 2009, there was violence one night, but it was NOT perpetrated by demonstrators but by petty criminals, who were using the opportunity to their advantage. The demonstrators ended up by protecting the police.

Another current example concerns the recent programme on CBS about how virtually 100% of Downs’ embryos are aborted in Iceland after screening. The head of the obstetrics department at the National University Hospital here is now having to explain that the statistics were used to prove their point, which means that viewers were being misled.

Some media sources have foreign correspondents based in particular countries, and such people SHOULD be able to report relatively accurately. And that’s fine. But for news from smaller countries,  I suspect that news media rarely use input from outsiders, even though those outsiders may be ideally suited to report in detail on issues.

So this is a plea to print, online and broadcasting media: develop a network of stringers in different countries and use them. Like me in Iceland, for instance.