Thera Dal Prà Iversen
Norwegians do not usually claim to be the most patriotic of people. Though Norway is frequently listed as one of the happiest and best countries to live in the world, the Jante Law—a Scandinavian socio-cultural trait that boils down to ‘Do not think you are anyone special’—is often cited as the reason for why Norwegians are not vocal about their nationalist pride. The lack of a vocal nationalism, however, does not mean that there is a lack of cultural traditions from which a national rhetoric can draw. One of the more subdued examples of Norwegian cultural practices is the dugnad, and its importance in shaping Norwegian society cannot be overstated.
The dugnad is an old, common cultural practice in Norway. In essence, it is an organized activity in which a group of people, such as neighbors, a school, or a sports team, gather to do volunteer work that will benefit their community. It is not an exaggeration to say that every Norwegian knows what a dugnad is and has most likely participated in it at some point in their life. The word was even chosen as the national word of the year in 2004.
It is therefore perhaps not surprising that when the COVID-19 virus began to sweep over Europe, Norwegian politicians started using the word as a rhetorical strategy to persuade the Norwegian public to follow the implementations put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. But now, nearly seven months after the gravity of the virus first shook Europe in March, how effective has the rhetoric of a national dugnad been?
On March 11, 2020, the day before Norway officially went into lockdown, the Minister of Health and Care Services Bent Høie wrote a chronicle in the tabloid newspaper Verdens Gang—one of the most widely read national newspapers in Norway—to announce the measures Norway would take to slow the spread of the virus:
We are good at dugnad in Norway. Many of us have participated in the work we do together in our neighborhoods and sports teams each fall and each spring…Now we need a dugnad in the Norwegian society… We need everyone in this dugnad. The employer who facilitates that employees can work from home, the local store that delivers groceries to the family in quarantine, volunteers who help those without a family. Everybody makes an important effort for the community. Each and every one of us has an important job to do now…It is not a big and complicated job. But it is very important…we are participating in a dugnad that will save lives.
By framing the announcement of the lockdown as a national dugnad, rather than using the actual word “lockdown”, Minister Høie softened the announcement of several measures that are the strictest government-enforced procedures since the Second World War. Indeed, Minister Høie refers to much of what characterizes a regular dugnad with his emphasis on community and community work. By gesturing towards Norwegians’ familiarity with dugnads and by exemplifying each individual’s role—the employer, the grocery store, the volunteers—he compliments both the Norwegians’ unique (and uniquely Norwegian) skillset and their capacity for empathy, which makes the announcement of a national lockdown more palatable. The frequent use of the “we” and “us” pronouns helps to underscore the message that the government is one with the people, and that the strict measures count for both politicians and populace alike. Using the word dugnad indirectly obliges the population to follow the newly implemented procedures by coding them in a rhetoric that is centered around a national tradition. In other words, by coding the measures as a form of a national dugnad, the measures appear less as a strict set of government policies and more as a community effort in which people participate voluntarily.
Both the initial reaction to the national dugnad and its initial effect on the virus were encouraging. The Norwegian population responded positively to the idea of a national dugnad, and the strict measures—the closure of all non-essential businesses, cancellations of all cultural events, and strict restrictions on private gatherings—appear to have been effective in preventing the spread of the virus this spring.
That is, they have been effective until now. Since Norwegians were once again allowed to travel abroad in mid-July, the rate of infection has steadily risen. The gradual lifting of the restrictions enforced in March has revealed the cracks in the Norwegian government’s national rhetoric of dugnad: namely, that dugnad is inherently an activity that relies on voluntary work. And the eagerness with which the Norwegian public vacationed in Spain—one of the countries hardest hit by the virus in the world—makes it clear that the Norwegian public has grown bored with community work. As the lockdown eased and restrictions were lifted, the government has continued to repeat the message of a national dugnad, while only stating recommendations to follow rather than reinstating previous measures: the government recommends keeping a distance; it recommends wearing a face mask; and it recommends avoiding all non-essential travel. But without actual legislation to enforce the public to follow the endless list of recommendations, people will inevitably ignore them. And a national strategy that relies on approximately five and a half million people to voluntarily follow government recommendations, rather than enforcing new legislature, is a weak long-term strategy for combating a virus for which there is no cure.
“The work that is now being done in the counties to prevent further infection is a national dugnad to prevent the beginning of [a] new [wave],” repeated Minister Høie in September 2020. But the latest numbers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health make it clear that the second wave is not coming to Norway; it is already there. And with a long, unforgiving Norwegian dark winter ahead, more than nationalist rhetoric is needed to prevent more deaths.
Thera Dal Prà Iversen is a Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam.
 All Norwegian quotes are translated by the author of this blog post.