As coronavirus surges in Europe, Greenland health authorities seek further border restrictions

A proposal to allow only flights from Denmark comes amid scramble to prevent outbreak after resident returning from abroad tested positive.

By Kevin McGwin - October 26, 2020
“Norsaq”, an Airbus A330 that flies Air Greenland’s route between Copenhagen and Kangerlussuaq, is prepared for departure to Greenland in this file photo (Kevin McGwin)

Greenland’s health authorities are confident they have prevented the country’s only current known case of COVID-19 from spreading, but with the only possible source of new outbreaks coming from people entering country, they are now redoubling their efforts to limit travel there.

Some 100 people were told to self-quarantine last week after being potentially infected by a Greenlandic resident returning from abroad. The individual had been in close physical contact with relatives during a mandatory self-quarantine period. Some of those individuals have now tested negative, meaning the people they were in contact with — including the seven members of the national assembly’s finance committee — are no longer at risk.

But even as the fear of an outbreak abates, health authorities are concerned that the emergence of a second wave of infections in Europe could potentially reach Greenland. While they admit new cases are inevitable, they have proposed closing the border with all countries other than Denmark and are asking residents not to travel abroad in order to reduce the risk of Greenland’s health service being overwhelmed.

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For the time being, the most common type of passenger travelling to Greenland is a resident returning home from travel abroad. Foreign travel has been advised against throughout the pandemic, but, last week, Kim Kielsen, the premier, said the inability of European countries to manage the new outbreak should be a warning to Greenland.

“I would, in the strongest terms, urge people not to travel outside of Greenland. The only way COVID-19 can come to Greenland is from abroad, and that could result in people spreading it around here,” Kielsen said.

In addition, health authorities would like to funnel all air traffic to the country through Denmark, which they say offers them the best opportunity to prevent anyone infected with COVID-19 from entering Greenland.

The only other regularly scheduled flights to Greenland are from Iceland, although those routes have essentially been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Currently, passengers on the three weekly departures operated by flag carrier Air Greenland from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s primary international airport, must test negative for COVID-19 no more than five days before their departure. Upon arrival in Greenland, travellers must self-quarantine for 14 days, or until they deliver a second, negative, test taken at least five days after their arrival.

Health authorities credit the system, implemented this spring, with preventing an outbreak during the initial wave. The system was relaxed during the summer. Since being reinstated in connection with an increase in the number of infections in Europe, it has prevented passengers who were infected with COVID-19 from travelling to Greenland, according to Henrik L. Hansen, the chief medical officer.

“The trend is worrying,” he said on Friday. “If we see widespread transmission within Greenland it could potentially be catastrophic.”

Keeping COVID-19 out of Greenland largely been possible because Denmark and Greenland share a police force, and because of the work by Air Greenland to ensure that all passengers can prevent proof they have tested negative, according to Hansen.