On Sept. 24, 2021, the Norwegian government announced it would end coronavirus-related restrictions following a decrease in COVID-19 cases and a largely vaccinated population. The Scandinavian nation did not reclassify COVID-19 as the flu, nor did it compare the two diseases, but rather stated that control measures and societal preparedness must approach COVID-19 as “one of several respiratory diseases circulating with seasonal variation.” The health agency said the claim about the flu was a misrepresentation of a quoted official.
After 561 days of lockdown, Norway joined Denmark and Britain in becoming the third European nation/region to lift coronavirus-related lockdowns following a decline in cases and a surge in COVID-19 vaccination rates. But as the Scandinavian nation opened its doors, the internet rumor mill opened the flood gates surrounding the reasoning behind the official decision.
Following the decision, the European website The Local published an article on Sept. 21, 2021, titled, “Covid-19 in Norway can now be compared to the flu thanks to vaccines, says health chief.” But social media users and news outlets spun the decision to suggest that COVID-19 was no longer considered dangerous and that the respiratory disease could now be compared with the flu.
Two days after The Local article ran, the conservative media outlet Free West Media published a report on Sept. 23 with a misleading headline titled, “Norway reclassifies Covid-19: No more dangerous than ordinary flu.” The article read:
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health FHI has made the remarkable, but statistically supported, the decision to classify Covid-19 as a respiratory disease that is as dangerous as the common flu. It is clarified that the pandemic is not over, but that it has entered a new phase where Covid-19 is now equated with a common respiratory disease, such as a flu or respiratory infection. This is done, among other things, due to the mutations that the Coronavirus has undergone, which makes it less dangerous, together with increased natural and vaccination-induced immunity that has been achieved in Norwegian society.
In response to the publication of the article, some Snopes readers asked our team to verify the veracity of the article as it was shared across several platforms.
While it is true that Norway announced in late September 2021 that it would end coronavirus-related restrictions, this was done so in response to a decrease in COVID-19 cases and a largely vaccinated population. The Scandinavian nation did not reclassify COVID-19 as the flu, nor did it compare the two diseases, but rather stated that control measures and societal preparedness must approach COVID-19 as “one of several respiratory diseases circulating with seasonal variation.” The health agency said the flu claim was a misrepresentation of a quoted official.
The social media claims appear to have originated in misrepresented quotes made by NIPH Assistant Director Geir Bukholm in a Sept. 20 interview with the Norwegian media outlet VG, as was pointed out by Newsweek. The article, which was translated from Norwegian, credits Bukholm with saying the following:
We are now in a new phase where we must look at the coronavirus as one of several respiratory diseases with seasonal variation, says assistant director Geir Bukholm in FHI to VG.
The coronavirus thus joins the ranks of other respiratory diseases such as colds and seasonal flu.
In an email to Snopes, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) wrote that “it is not correct that the [NIPH] has claimed that 'COVID-19 is no more dangerous than ordinary flu.' This statement is probably a misinterpretation of this interview in a large Norwegian newspaper.”
“Our position, as stated in the news article, is that at this point in the pandemic we must start approaching covid-19 as one of several respiratory diseases circulating with seasonal variation. This means that the control measures that will be applicable for various respiratory diseases will require the same level of societal preparedness,” wrote the health agency.
“This does not mean that illness from coronavirus and the seasonal flu are similar. On an individual level, people must receive the correct treatment for the specific disease. We will be continuously following the epidemiology of both covid-19 and other respiratory diseases and will be prepared to react differently circumstances worsen.”
Shortly after the VG interview, the Norwegian government announced that the nation would lift coronavirus-related restrictions on Sept. 25.
“Meanwhile, it is important to note that we have not yet reached the goal that 90 per cent of the population over the age of 18 should be fully vaccinated. The vaccination rate is now almost 84 per cent. If you are not fully vaccinated, contact your municipality and ask for a vaccine,” said Camilla Stoltenberg, NIPH director-general, in a news release.
Contrary to the misleading representation, Norway's reopening of its doors showed that vaccination and lockdown measures worked in getting the virus under control. Furthermore, health officials note that while the country is returning to “normal everyday life with increased preparedness,” the pandemic is not over. As the colder months set in, it is anticipated that hospitals will be challenged by a combination of other diseases that are prominent in the winter, including influenza and the respiratory virus RSV.
Guidance remains in place that people continue to maintain hygienic measures implemented during the lockdown and to stay home if they are feeling ill.
Browne, Ed. “Fact Check: Did Norway Reclassify COVID as Flu?” Newsweek, 29 Sept. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/fact-check-norway-reclassify-covid-flu-dangerous-niph-fhi-geir-bukholm-1633926.
“Covid-19 in Norway Can Now Be Compared to the Flu Thanks to Vaccines, Says Health Chief.” The Local Norway, 21 Sept. 2021, https://www.thelocal.no/20210921/norwegian-health-chief-covid-19-can-now-be-compared-to-the-flu/.
FHI: Vi kan nå sammenligne coronaviruset med influensa. https://www.vg.no/i/ALEMnM. Accessed 30 Sept. 2021.
“Free West Media.” Media Bias/Fact Check, https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/free-west-media/. Accessed 30 Sept. 2021.
“Johnson: England to Lift Last Virus Restrictions on July 19.” AP NEWS, 12 July 2021, https://apnews.com/article/europe-business-health-government-and-politics-coronavirus-pandemic-3776cfdb1c180720b9ea000a2c65618b.
“Normal Daily Life with Increased Preparedness.” Norwegian Institute of Public Health, https://www.fhi.no/en/news/2021/normal-daily-life-with-increased-preparedness/. Accessed 30 Sept. 2021.
“Norway Reclassifies Covid-19: No More Dangerous than Ordinary Flu.” Free West Media, 23 Sept. 2021, https://freewestmedia.com/2021/09/23/norway-reclassifies-covid-19-no-more-dangerous-than-ordinary-flu/.
Ritchie, Hannah, et al. “Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19).” Our World in Data, Mar. 2020. ourworldindata.org, https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations.
“Rowdy Celebrations Erupt in Norway as COVID Restrictions End.” AP NEWS, 26 Sept. 2021, https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-business-health-europe-norway-4d3b34ca4362afa87772df309881216d.
"Denmark Lifts All Covid Restrictions, Crediting High Vaccine Uptake.” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/denmark-lifts-covid-restrictions-crediting-high-vaccine-uptake-rcna1967. Accessed 30 Sept. 2021.