When COVID-19 started rapidly spreading throughout Europe in March, Norway was hard hit. But under Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s leadership, the country quickly adopted strict lockdown measures and ramped up testing. Five months later, Norway now enjoys one of the lowest fatality rates in Europe.
“This is the rainiest day Norway has had since the 1930s,” Solberg said during a TIME 100 Talks discussion with International Editor Dan Stewart. “But I think, in a way, we were lucky in the unluck that we had.”
Less than two weeks ago, Norway opened up its borders to parts of Europe, welcoming tourists back into the country. Throughout Norway, citizens are enjoying the summer after a long winter and spring in lockdown. “We believe of course that we are able to control it,” Solberg says. “We know much more about the virus than when we started.”
But Solberg knows that for all the country’s successes, there remain many challenges ahead. Like other world leaders navigating the pandemic, Solberg is faced with rebuilding the Norwegian economy in the aftermath of lockdown measures. Although Norway has a strong economy, March and April saw the highest rates of unemployment the country has experienced since the 1930s. The government has dipped into its sovereign fund to help mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.
“We are trying to get activity going in all parts of the economy,” she says. “But we will close down if the numbers go too high.”
Whether strategies for stimulating the economy will align with efforts to decarbonize the Norweigan economy, however, remains a question for Solberg. Norway is western Europe’s top producer of oil and gas, but the government has faced pressure in recent years to divest from its extractive industries.
“We still believe that there will be a demand for oil and gas in the future and we think we should export,” Solberg says, but said that “it’s been a long time” since the Norweigan oil sector reached its peak. While Solberg did express a desire to transition to a greener economy, she noted that “there is always a dilemma for oil producing companies,” and that these countries need to “do it slowly where the economy can handle it.”
Also on the horizon for Solberg—and Norway’s economy—is a potential free-trade agreement with China, which has been in the works since before 2010. “China is a big part of the world economy,” she says. “I think it’s important to have a working relationship with them.” But for Norway—that was just elected as a member of the United Nations Security Council for the period 2021-2022—China’s human rights track-record cannot be ignored. “They also have to be open towards the idea that human rights are universal,” Solberg says.
As Solberg looks forward at the months ahead, she is cautiously optimistic. “We know where the risk points are.”
This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.