FM sister cities in Scandinavia struggling amid pandemic, too
Hamar, Norway, is a long way away. In fact, it's 3,982 miles east of Fargo-Moorhead and nearly 1,000 miles closer to the North Pole. Nearly 80 miles north of Oslo, the town rests in rolling hills on the shores of Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake. A 2014 census lists the town’s population at 29,520 people. In 1994, figure skating and speed skating events for the Winter Olympics were held at Vikingskipet, “The Viking Ship,” which is officially called Hamar Olympic Hall.
Hamar is a world away from Fargo-Moorhead, yet the towns are sister cities. Founded in 1956 by President Eisenhower, the Sister Cities program works “to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time.” According to the program website , “Sister Cities International has worked to create global relationships based on cultural, educational, information and trade exchanges.”
This year we share something new. Hamar has the COVID-19 virus, too.
Hamar Mayor Einar Busterud writes: “I want to express my sympathy and solidarity in a difficult time for the citizens of Fargo-Moorhead. The coronavirus changes our lives fundamentally and will do so for a long period of time, longer than the pandemic itself.”
In some ways, their situation is not as bad as ours.
“So far 80 people have tested positive," Busterud says. "The real numbers are somewhat higher because the testing capacity is limited. We have no reported deaths. One new incident on average per day indicates the pandemic is under control due to restrictions introduced by the authorities. It’s most dramatic for business, especially retailing and restaurants. For people in general, the most difficult thing is the lack of social contact, meetings face to face with family and friends. I think children miss contact with friends most of all. Sports fields and playgrounds are closed, same as schools and kindergartens. Grown-ups are missing restaurants, cinemas, concerts and sporting events.”
“The municipality is responsible for all healthcare, except hospitals,” Busterud continues. “We are working closely with our neighboring municipalities and establishing new services as testing centers and emergency rooms. It is very important that we try to send the same messages to the people, have the same rules and standards as our neighbors. As you experience in Fargo, borders can be confusing if rules or practices are different.”
In other ways, the situation reflects cultural and government differences.
“So far we are in a good mood. People’s income has so far been secured by government funding," Busterud says. "In the short-term people are not worried, but people are worried what the situation will be a few months ahead. We are slowly starting to reopen society. Next week we are starting with primary schools and kindergartens. I think the challenge is to open slowly and controlled. If we push too fast, we risk a new wave of the virus. I think it will be challenging. It will not be like pushing a button and continue where we were in March. People’s jobs will be affected, businesses will close, incomes will diminish. It will take years to come over this, and what happens on the international arena in the wake of the virus will also strongly influence the open Norwegian economy.”
Nearly 400 miles southeast of Hamar is a storybook town filled with wooden houses. Much like here in Fargo-Moorhead, the Stångån River flows through Vimmerby, Sweden. Astrid Lindgren World, a theme park based on work by the author of Pippi Longstocking, draws people from around the world.
Vimmerby was Fargo-Moorhead’s Sister City before Hamar. The virus is there as well.
“The situation in Vimmerby is still quite calm," Carolina Leijonram, head of the local government there, writes. "We have a general spread of infection but so far to a very small extent. We follow the national recommendations from The Public Health Agency which is: stay at home if you are feeling ill, even with mild symptoms, avoid visiting older people and, if you are over 70 years old, limit contact with other people as far as possible even if you feel well. Wash your hands often with hot water and soap and keep your distance from other people in public places.”
“The most difficult thing for us is the uncertainty,” Leijonram says. “Stockholm is the city in Sweden which is the worst affected so far. We can't be sure when the situation affects us harder than right now, but we are preparing for a worse scenario. The locals are committed. Several initiatives have been launched to help older people and at the same time, support local entrepreneurs.”
Each year, about half a million visitors visit Astrid Lindgren's World in Vimmerby but because of the virus and the authority’s decision to prohibit all crowds more than 50 people, the park will not be able to open May 15 as planned.
"This decision affects many small business owners being dependent on all tourists who come to Vimmerby every summer," Leijonram says. "The opening is entirely dependent on how the corona situation progresses. Our main focus is to try to get through the crisis in the best possible way.”
From Norway, Busterud writes: “I send my greetings to the city of Fargo and its people. I have good memories from Fargo. It's a thriving city, and I admire the efforts you have made to build an attractive and competitive community.”
Olsen is an author and professor of English at Concordia College.