Test, trace and trust: How Iceland became a COVID-19 success story

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland — "We're open," Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said in a recent interview.

Students are in classrooms. Partygoers are packed into bars and restaurants. Tourists are welcome. The country has recorded no cases of domestic COVID-19 transmission for weeks, and it has managed to keep dangerous new variants out, without shutting the borders.

"If I think about this pandemic, what really stands out is, really, how the Icelandic public has participated, how people have really placed their confidence in the advice of the experts and the scientists," Jakobsdóttir said. "They have actually changed their behavior."

Many other countries have imposed strict national lockdowns to control the spread of the coronavirus, but Iceland has not resorted to such extreme measures. Instead, it has focused on a rigorous system of testing, tracing, quarantine and isolation — and it has trusted visitors and residents to abide by it.

The solidarity has also allowed Iceland to keep its schools open, which other countries have struggled to do. In Iceland, children younger than 16 have been in classrooms since August.

"That has been a top priority for us," said Jakobsdóttir, who was elected in 2017 at age 41, making her one of the world's youngest leaders.

She said that when she decided to keep schools open, she also considered the effect it would have on women and their ability to work.

"I think if there's one lesson that we can derive from this pandemic is the importance of women's work around the world, in the health sector, in the welfare systems," she said.

And despite Iceland's success at managing the pandemic, Jakobsdóttir said she remained concerned about new coronavirus variants — as well as other dangers beyond COVID-19.

More than 20,000 earthquakes have rattled the Reykjanes Peninsula in recent weeks, and scientists fear a volcano could erupt in the area. Jakobsdóttir had to move this interview by several hours because she had to chair a disaster preparation meeting.

"When I talk about success, I do that knowing that things can change, and they can change pretty rapidly," she said. "Let's say we will stay on our toes."