This is Greenland’s little red lifeline during the COVID-19 crisis

The first case of COVID-19 in Greenland was discovered on March 16th and as of April 15th the total of cases number 11 and those 11 have all recovered. No new cases have been detected so far.

These numbers may seem small and manageable from a global perspective, but for Greenland, each case poses a great threat and authorities were quick to decide on a lock-down and no-foreign-entry as soon as the second case of COVID-19 was detected. Since March 18th Greenland has been on lock-down, not only to the outside world but within the country as well.

Greenland is the largest island in the world, being 2.166.086 km2 (1.106.602 m2) in size. It has 72 towns and settlements spread along the island’s coastline, in addition to the capital of Nuuk, where approximately 18.000 people live and where the nine COVID-19 cases were found.

The country’s total population numbers approximately 57.000 people, mainly Kalaallit (Inuit) and distances between habited places – and medical facilities – are often great. For instance, one of the northernmost settlements in Greenland, Qaanaaq, is approximately 1500 km (932 m) from the nearest fully equipped hospital in Nuuk, and the only hospital in the country where COVID-19 could be dealt with. 

These great distances and lack of medical facilities make it crucial for authorities to keep the pandemic under control and to keep unaffected towns and settlements in isolation. The fact that Greenland is a country where no two habited places are linked by roads helps to make this happen, but the most important factor in the country’s response to the pandemic, was the decision to ground Air Greenland’s operations, internationally and domestically.

The airline has often been referred to as Greenland’s lifeline, transporting people and cargo throughout the country and operating emergency flights, helicopter shuttles, search & rescue operations and so on. On a normal day, Air Greenland operates around 45 domestic flights in addition to operating a route to Copenhagen in Denmark and to Iceland. All flights have now been stopped until the 30th of April – in hope of stopping COVID-19’s pathway as well. 

But COVID-19 testing results cannot be done in Greenland. 

So in this critical situation, a little red and much loved “lifeline” has emerged in the form of a Bombardier Dash-8. A small 37 passenger propeller plane, the type that makes up the bulk of the domestic fleet, but now only flies from Nuuk to Copenhagen; an 8-hour journey in total via Iceland – bringing COVID-19 tests to Danish laboratories and returning with important medical supplies and other necessities. 

The set up of Air Greenland’s COVID-19 flights is that, weather-permitting, 6 mornings per week, one Dash-8 departs Copenhagen airport and another departs Nuuk. The two planes then meet in Iceland, COVID-19 tests and medical supplies are exchanged and both planes return to where they came from. This air-bridge is Greenland’s only “physical” connection with the outside world now during the crisis.

Photograph Air Greenland: JONAA©Kasper Zeeb
Photograph Nuuk: JONAA©Vilborg Einarsdottir

Article updated on April 15th.