As Greenland reports its first COVID-19 case, Nuuk hopes to leverage natural isolation to fight the disease

Greenland will impose a two-week air travel ban and close schools. Officials also advise against overland travel between towns.

By Kevin McGwin - March 18, 2020
A reminder to people in Greenland that good hand hygiene is crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19. (Naalakkersuisuit)

A day after Greenland reported its first case of COVID-19, that country’s authorities said they will temporarily halt all non-emergency domestic and international air traffic. Ground transport by dog sled or snowmobile between towns and settlements is also being frowned upon.

“Our country is unique; we are 74 isolated communities that can each be closed off. That will allow us to keep the virus out of some of our towns and settlements,” Kim Kielsen, the premier, said during a daily coronavirus update Tuesday.

The two-week halt on air travel begins Friday at midnight. It comes after a passenger on a recent flight between Copenhagen and Kangerlussuaq, the country’s main international airport, tested positive for COVID-19. A total of 31 people in Greenland have been tested to date; 21 have tested negative. Health authorities are awaiting results for the remaining nine.

[‘Stay at home’ Greenland authorities tell travellers]

In addition to grounding flights, all primary schools will be closed, Kielsen announced.

Greenland’s top doctor had argued on Monday that school closings would be premature, if the aim is to use them to limit the spread of COVID-19.

But on Tuesday, Kielsen said the decision to close schools was being made, with broad political support, in part to allay fears of parents and others that COVID-19 could spread unchecked — particularly after reports of passengers to Greenland ignoring self-quarantine orders.

“We understand the people are on edge, and we are listening to them,” he said.

Later in the day Tuesday, Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s prime minister, during a televised address announcing further measures in that country to prevent the spread of the virus, appeared to lend her support to Kielsen.

“Now is the time to use whatever means you have available,” she said, in comments addressed to authorities in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, where 47 cases of COVID-19 have been reported amongst the country’s 49,000 residents.

[Nunavut braces for COVID-19]

The decision to ground air traffic spells a temporary end to scheduled flights off Greenland — in particular the daily flight to Copenhagen used by the vast majority of foreign travelers — but the number of passengers had fallen sharply as coronavirus-related travel warnings became increasingly urgent. Denmark now advises against all non-essential foreign travel.

Ship-borne cargo to Greenland is not affected by the decision, and aircraft will be standing by at all airports in the event emergency travel is needed. Similarly, Greenlandic authorities say they will seek to maintain regular flights between Nuuk and Copenhagen via Keflavík, Iceland, in order to be able to transport healthcare staff and equipment to and from the island.

Meanwhile, a Greenlandic skier who contracted COVID-19 on March 6 in Italy, and has been in quarantine there since, is now testing negative for the virus. She will now be permitted to leave quarantine.