Can You Say 'Death Panels'?

Perverse priorities in Norway.

On paper, the six million citizens of Norway are among the luckiest people in the world. Thanks to profits from North Sea oil, the nation’s sovereign wealth fund is worth over $1 trillion, which comes to about $200,000 a head. Norwegians earn good salaries, on average, and even though they shell out a lot in income taxes – as well as the world’s highest taxes on gasoline and alcohol – they’re supposed to receive a great deal in return, namely free education up through the graduate-school level (if they choose to go that far) and a social-welfare system that promises to serve the needs of the disabled and unemployed as well as to cover the costs of everyone’s medical care from cradle to grave.

But the promises are one thing, the reality another. In recent decades, like other countries in Western Europe, Norway has welcomed massive numbers of immigrants, an alarmingly high percentage of whom seem destined to be lifelong welfare clients. In Norway as elsewhere, this has put a severe strain on the treasury. Priorities have had to be identified, and choices have had to be made. The nature of those priorities and choices is reflected in two recent news items from the land of the fjords.

One of the reports concerns a family of five in Seljord, a small town in the mountains of Telemark. Ghiat Kanaan, the father; Riham Abouaisha, his wife; and their three children, Bana, Ghazal, and Omar, came to Norway from Syria about four years ago, presumably as asylum seekers. It’s not clear from the news story, which was posted on the website of NRK on March 4, whether anyone in the family has a job; all we know is that they can’t afford to buy their own residence. As a rule, such families are placed in rental apartments on the taxpayers’ kroner, in addition to being supplied with furniture, a car, and regular bank transfers to guarantee them a decent standard of living. 

Now, however, under “From Renting to Owning,” a new program initiated by the Seljord municipal government in order to ensure that “people like the Kanaans” stay in the area (why this should be a desideratum is also unclear), the Kanaan family have their own “dream house.” They picked it out themselves; the municipality of Seljord bought it for them to live in, while retaining the title; eventually, they will become its owners. The Kanaans were one of the first two families in Seljord to benefit from this program, which plunked down a total of about $500,000 for the two houses. The report on the Kanaans’ new house was treated in the media as a feel-good story.

An op-ed that appeared at the end of February in the newspaper Bergensavisen was the opposite of a feel-good story. Under the headline “The Right to Breathe,” 21-year-old David Instebø Vang, a native of Bergen, explained that he was born with cystic fibrosis (CF) and that he is expected to live to be somewhere between 40 and 50. “The question is really what will give way first – the intestines, the pancreas, or the lungs? I would bet on the lungs, because it already feels as if they’re running on empty. Breathing isn’t easy, and talking is usually followed by coughs and hacking. Breathing, for me, is like breathing through a straw while running at full speed up and down the stairs.” And this is just one of several very unpleasant symptoms that make living with CF a painful daily struggle.

Fortunately, there are two new medicines, Kaftrio and Symkevi, that not only could make it easier for David and other CF patients to breathe but also could prolong their life expectancy by an average of nine years. Around the world, doctors treating CF have begun prescribing both drugs for CF patients, and private and public health insurance in many countries have begun bearing the expense. Unfortunately, Norwegian authorities have ruled that the price tag for these drugs, 130,000 kroner (about $13,000) a month per patient, is too steep. As David puts it: “I can’t tell you exactly how much my life is worth, but it’s obviously not worth 130,000 kroner a month.” So much for a health-care system that, like the NHS in Britain, is promoted domestically as the greatest provider of its kind in the world.

I have juxtaposed these two stories for an obvious reason. Do the math: the $500,000 that Seljord paid for those two houses could pay for three years and four months of Kaftrio and Symkevi for a single CF patient. How is it that a government that can afford to buy a house for a recently arrived foreign family refuse to give life-prolonging medication to a lifelong Norwegian citizen? It is not a question of who is intrinsically more deserving. It is a question of whether a life is worth more than a home. It is also a question of whether someone who, given that he has a Norwegian name, presumably descends from a long line of Norwegian taxpayers, has more of a right than a Syrian family does to benefit from the welfare system to which his parents and grandparents have contributed.

How much has the Kanaan family cost Norway in toto? How many other families in Seljord and elsewhere in Norway will be given homes under programs like “From Renting to Owning”? How much money will all that add up to – and how many of Norway’s 400 CF patients could live longer and healthier lives if that money were spent on medicine rather than real estate? Further complicating this picture are anecdotes like the following: a few years ago, in another town in Norway, I had a friendly young neighbor from Kabul who was allowed to move permanently to Norway, along with his wife and two small children (and a nephew), and was instantly put on the welfare rolls, precisely so that he could receive treatment for a dire ailment of his own that would likely have taken his life had he remained in Afghanistan.

Living in this country for 20 years, I have spent years observing the priorities on display in these stories. I have seen disabled Norwegian widows stashed away in shabby public housing among druggies and jailbirds, and homeless Norwegian citizens (heroin addicts, veterans with PTSD) sleeping in the doorways of downtown Oslo businesses, even as newcomers from Syria and Iraq and Pakistan sit watching Al-Jazeera on widescreen TVs in their pleasant, centrally located apartments. Routinely, immigrants – especially those who come from certain countries and who, from the moment they arrive in Norway, are dependent on the state to feed, clothe, and house them – are given precedence over Norwegians. Nor is this pattern unique to Norway, of course. 

How can priorities be so twisted? Simple. The political elites who make these decisions derive immense self-satisfaction from helping down-and-out aliens. Helping ordinary Norwegians? Not so much. All too many of the people who run this country look upon ordinary Norwegians as deplorables. Besides, it’s those deplorables whose taxes fund the welfare system: how can you expect the political elites to derive any sense of self-satisfaction from giving handouts to the very people who paid that money in to begin with? No, in order to feel like saviors, the elites need to give that cash to foreigners – and the more foreign the better. (Europeans or North Americans, for example, need not apply.)

Yes, the Norwegian welfare system was introduced, above all, to give Norwegians in dire straits a safety net ­– not to buy houses for immigrants. But for the elites, that’s an uncomfortable truth. In order to bury it, those elites, like their counterparts in America and elsewhere, have striven to implant in the minds of the rabble the idea that putting themselves first in their own country – America First in America, and Norway First in Norway – is selfish, insular, xenophobic, racist. In short: Trumpian! So it is that the Kanaans get their house – and every chance of living long, safe, prosperous, and happy lives in Norway – and David Vang is denied his meds, and faces an early death.  

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