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Life Has Sweden made me a Covidiot?

Oct. 19, 2020
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Up until March, being Swedish was considered utopian and non-threatening. But with our unorthodox corona strategy, Sweden has become an outcast—the subject of criticism and derision. 

If an alien landed in Stockholm today, they might not realize there was a raging pandemic. When most of the world instituted draconian lockdown measures, Sweden’s Public Health Agency focused on “recommendations” rather than strict rules, with no national lockdown or mask mandate. Currently, Zoom classes are obligatory at universities, public gatherings of more than 50 people are forbidden, and bar service is only permitted if people are seated. Daycare, pre-K through ninth grade, cafés, restaurants, and Swedish borders have been open throughout the pandemic, and the government has abstained from stringent monitoring and penalizations of its citizens. Despite this relatively low-key COVID-19 approach, Swedes have still had to adapt—but not to the same extent as our global counterparts.

From the perspective of a 19-year-old gal whose dream is to live a pre-COVID-19 lifestyle again, Sweden has a more user-friendly approach. Although my parents did stock up on canned beans and toilet paper at first, things have eased up; supermarket shelves are overflowing with hand sanitizer since people aren't buying as much as manufacturers predicted. 

Last month, I went to a disco-themed birthday party with nearly 400 people. While I watched the sun never set in the Stockholm archipelago, a glass of cold rosé locked to my lips instead of a surgical mask, my American friends were bored out of their minds and trapped inside their childhood homes. It’s almost inconceivable that individual states, let alone New York City, could go through lockdown again, whereas Swedes could live comfortably with their restrictions for many months to come if necessary. 

The aforementioned is because Swedes don't have to stress. With high taxes comes a generous welfare system. Students don't worry about receiving financial aid because every Swedish university is free. If infected by the coronavirus, Swedish families don't fear losing their jobs by staying home from work, and they don’t have to worry about paying off hospital bills since they have paid sick leave and universal healthcare. With middle schools open, I haven’t had to worry about my younger brother falling behind academically; he's gone to in-person school every day with little to no changes. 

I should also note that Sweden's management of the pandemic hasn’t been clouded by government officials running for reelection. A set law in Sweden's Constitution prevents the government from interfering with administrative authorities like the Public Health Agency. I still tune in to the lifeless news conferences with Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Anders Tegnell; listening to him is like napping through a painfully slow documentary in contrast to the White House's coronavirus briefings, which are like a haphazard reality show of their own. 

Today, the U.S. is ninth in coronavirus deaths worldwide per million with Sweden only two spots behind. This suggests that Sweden should be taking the pandemic more seriously, especially considering the U.S. population is 30 times as big as Sweden’s. But as lockdowns and restrictions become unbearable, Americans are forced to come to terms with co-existing rather than conquering the coronavirus in order to live semi-normal lives again. Several states are reopening schools and restaurants, inadvertently following the Swedish model. Yet Sweden's approach may not be easy to replicate elsewhere. Geographically, Sweden is around the same size as California but sparsely populated, with only ten million inhabitants. Self-isolation occurs on a daily basis given that Swedes are known for always sitting as far away as possible from one another on the subway; we’re used to spending weekends in remote cottages outside of big cities; for us, it’s very unusual to small talk with strangers in a cafe. For Swedes, “social distancing” is already a prevailing state of mind in their daily routine.

Nowadays, I’m back to roaming the streets of New York City—and it feels good. Sweden has felt like an alternate reality, and I’m full of respect and admiration for the tough New Yorkers who persevered through the lockdown. I faithfully wear my mask, carry my hand sanitizer, and keep my distance. I believe Sweden took a (calculated?) risk with its outlier strategy and, in many ways, has been fortunate the numbers haven’t further spiraled out of control. 

However, there’s been one glaring problem with Sweden's strategy that’s also present in the U.S.: Black people and immigrants are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and disproportionately so. While Somali-Swedes make up about 1% of Sweden's population, they've made up 5% of hospitals' confirmed cases, and in the U.S., Black people are infected and dying at higher rates. In Sweden and the U.S., many Black people and immigrants work in public transportation, healthcare, government, and grocery stores—which, during a pandemic, makes them essential workers. Similarly, the elderly in nursing homes have comprised a disproportionate amount of Sweden's COVID death toll. The lauded welfare system failed this fragile demographic with inadequate preparation, supplies, and guidelines. 

Despite Sweden’s less stringent rules, I tested negative for COVID-19 and the antibodies before traveling to New York. I was certain I would have gotten infected at that crazy disco party. So why did I take the risk? Youthful arrogance, peer pressure, and the desire to dress up and dance again. But it wasn’t guilt-free—many times that evening, I questioned if it was worth putting our collective health in jeopardy to have a good time. 

A land of technocrats, I fear Swedish logic has made people—myself included—desensitized to the humanity of coronavirus victims. Sweden has remained “open,” but at what cost? Only time will tell which strategy was the most effective, but as a half-American and half-Swede, I feel more conflicted than many of my all-Swedish or all-American friends. I can’t help but wonder if Sweden’s flexible approach has brainwashed me or if the U.S. prognosis is too alarmist. Still, one thing is certain: this insidious virus knows no borders. 

Photo via Getty Images.