Sweden under attack

I put out a picture of my local cafe yesterday and got the reaction from a friend in Germany ‘what!? Are cafes still open?! Everything’s closed here!’ It seems like most places in the world are on lock down. But not in Sweden yet. The Swedish authorities have chosen another route, and are being attacked for it from the international community.

Media in the UK and USA are calling Sweden’s approach ‘Russian roulette’ with the lives of the population. One neighbouring country said Sweden is making its worst decision throughout history. Italian press have said it’s beyond comprehension why Sweden doesn’t follow the way that Italy has gone.

In Sweden there is no lock down, or curfew. It seems like the government want to protect the nation – without totally destroying the economy. Restaurants and cafes are open. Shops are open. Schools are open. However, sport and cultural events have been cancelled, theatres and cinemas are closed, as are sports centres, swimming pools, many work places, some museums, universities and colleges. Sweden’s largest gym chain was closed, and has now reopened. Meeting in groups of more 50 people is illegal.

I’m not here to defend or criticize Sweden’s approach. I am not a doctor or a virus expert, and I am certainly not an epidemiologist. However, as a citizen, I am obliged to follow the recommendations put forward by the authorities:

Work from home if you can, avoid large groups, stand two meters away from other people, socially distance yourself, limit your movement, wash your hands and crucially – stay home if you show the slightest symptom: cough, sniffle, temperature, sneezing.

It seems like many people are following these recommendations, but some are not. For me, it’s about individual responsibility for yourself and the collective. If we all follow the recommendations now, the quicker it will be over. Makes sense, right?

But some people still crowd into public transport, or sit on busy restaurant terraces. Some old folks, the most at-risk in our community, still mingle amongst people and still go shopping. The ski resorts are still open, but not the after ski. With Easter approaching, swarms of people will descend upon these resorts. God forbid that they should miss out on their holiday.

Experts believe this is of little consequence as the virus already exists in society and cannot be eradicated. They are focusing instead on flattening the curve and not on preventing the spread of the virus. They are ramping up health care services and trying to delay the inflow of patients needing care. It seems like it is a question of when, rather than if, we all get infected. The vast majority of people will not be affected with more than mild flu-like symptoms. The main concern at the moment is our elderly. They need to stay home, and many aren’t. How the Government will approach this is the next big question.

When all this is over, we can look back and judge. Whose approach was the best?

With the benefit of hindsight, we might see that Sweden did the right thing, lives were saved and the economy survived.

Or we might see that not enforcing a lock down was the most devastating decision Sweden ever made.

Swedish solidarity in times of crisis

My sister wrote in our family chat that this crisis brings the best and the worst out in people. It made me think. Truthfully, most of the news today is bad. But there are some moments of positivity shining through. We seem to be closing in on a potential vaccine. In Sweden, the situation is manageable – that enormous volume of people needing health care hasn’t happened yet. Most people seem to be taking their personal responsibility and staying tf home.

But most of the positive news is connected to the way in which people are behaving towards each other. When I thought solidarity was dead in Sweden, it seems like the crisis has proved me wrong. It warms the cockles of the heart. Here are a few examples:

Residents are putting notes on walls and through doors offering help to people who can’t go out because they are sick, quarantined or in a risk group. ‘If you need help walking the dog, buying food or going to the chemist, just call me on..’

In the town of Ystad, an elderly woman had her 96th birthday. A local school class didn’t want her to be alone, so they stood outside her balcony and serenaded her.

A movement has started up to support and show appreciation for health care staff. When in a cafe, you can buy a coffee, or sandwich etc. in advance. This is then given for free to a customer who comes in after you and is a healthcare worker. This is one I actually copied and did today at my local cafe.

A student took the initiative and enlisted hundreds of other students who want to volunteer to help in the health care system.

A bakery in the Swedish town of Karlstad decided they wanted to give everybody a laugh. So they designed a new cake. In the shape of a roll of toilet paper.

A loo roll cake at a cafe in Karlstad, Sweden

Do you know of any other acts of kindness in Sweden or wherever you are? Please share!

Useful Swedish to know during a pandemic

This is aimed at those of you who don’t speak Swedish and who’d like to understand some of the key Swedish words related to the pandemic – or ‘pandemin’.

Akuten – A&E, Emergency Room

Apotek – chemist or pharmacist

Hamstra – to hoard, to stockpile

Handsprit – hand sanitizer

Hemarbeta – work from home

Hosta – to cough

Influensa – the flu

Isolering – isolation

Karantän – quarantine

Kris – crisis

Luftburen – airborne

Läkemedel – medicine

Nysa – to sneeze

Permittera – to lay off temporarily, furlough

Prov – test

Smitta – contagion, to infect

Smittbärärbidrag – Social benefit for carriers

Stanna hemma – stay home

Stänga ned – to shut down

Toapapper – toilet paper

Torgskräck – agoraphobia

Tvätta händerna – wash your hands

Tvål – soap

Undantagstillstånd – National Emergency

Utegångsförbud – curfew

Please let me know if you’d like me to add any other important words to this list.

Watching the Swedes react to corona virus

As the corona virus sweeps across the world, it’s interesting to watch how people react. While the measures the Swedish government are making do not seem as extreme as many other countries, the behaviour of some people is. Panic buying seems to be the name of the game. Panic buying and hoarding. And it doesn’t seem unique to Sweden.

Social media is awash with images of empty supermarket shelves. People are hoarding certain obvious items – such as hand gel, pasta, eggs, rice, beans and flour. But also weird items. For example, in my local supermarket, cucumbers are totally gone! And the Italian red wine shelf was pumped dry at my local wine store!

But the item causing the most debate seems to be toilet paper. Apparently the loo roll shelves have been totally cleaned out. It seems Swedes, and many others around the world, are seriously worried about wiping their bums if they get the virus.

Currently in Sweden, there is no general quarantine or curfew, as in many other countries. However, many companies have temporarily closed and employees are being asked to work from home. Public gatherings of over 500 people are forbidden. At the time of writing this the borders are still open and so are the schools.

We do have to be vigilant and we do have to act responsibly. Washing hands regularly, avoiding people who show symptoms, coughing/sneezing into the fold of our arms and not participating in large gatherings of people are a few of the ways. ‘Social distancing’ is the term this has been given – a new word for the 2020 dictionary.

But wiping out the supermarket shelves? In general, it’s good to have enough food at home to last a couple of weeks I guess. But do we really need enough toilet paper and red wine to last 6 months?

Hoarding is a logical panic reaction to a crisis situation, and it’s interesting to see how quickly people succumb to herd mentality. But it’s also a selfish action. Draining the supermarket shelves means that there is nothing left to buy for lower income people (elderly, unemployed, studying, sick) who live day to day and do not have the economic means to bulk buy. So let’s remember the concept of solidarity next time we go shopping.

One thing I’ve observed so far from this crisis; how quickly self-interest and self-preservation takes over.

The month the world shrank

The existence and the spreading of the Corona virus in the last few weeks cannot have passed anybody by. In the earlier stages of the virus, flights were cancelled in and out of China, then we were advised to avoid other countries in South East Asia. Then Iran? And Italy? Should we also soon avoid Gothenburg?

The world went from a wide open planet of international travel to a closed place where we are advised to stay put. In under a month, the world shrank.

How might this impact Sweden and the Swedes? Well, business is certainly affected. Imports are stuck in China. Events are cancelled. Employees returning from affected areas are told to stay home for two weeks, in a corporately-imposed quarantine. And this might just be the beginning.

What about the Swedes themselves? Swedes are well-known for being travelers. The people of this small, cold nation set out all over the world in search of sun, warmth, light, and adventure. Will it be so easy to tell them to stop traveling? Some would say it is impossible. You can take away many things from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday. For some, it is almost perceived as a human right to travel to warmer climates. I would say how easy it is to get Swedes to stop traveling depends on how any possible travel ban is imposed.

In general, Swedes value rules. And, in general, they follow them: traffic rules, laws, deadlines and agreements. In comparative cultural research one of the frameworks that is often used is the contrast between rules/task and relationships. Simply put, some societies value rules over relationships, thinking that rules should be followed irrespective of the relationship between people. Others value relationships over rules, often seeing the rule more as a recommendation.

Consistently in research, Sweden comes out as oriented towards the rules-side of the spectrum. While this is of course a generalization, it suggests that Swedes tend to take to rules and regulations very easily, tend to prioritize them, and tend to value them. When Sweden legislated against smoking in restaurants, people’s behavior fell into line over night. It wasn’t the case in many other countries. In the EU, Sweden is one of the countries that has applied most of the EU legislation on a local level. When participating in tenant association meetings, Swedes rely heavily on the house charter to understand what is right and wrong behaviour. A customer of mine refused a friendly lunch (in my mind to build relationship) because the company had issued a decree against corruption. None of this might be the case in other countries where a higher premium is put on individual relationships and circumstances, rather than what it says in the rule book.

So will Swedes stop traveling? If it is legislated, yes. If it becomes an official ban, then most Swedes will probably follow it. The practical nature of the Swede will understand its importance. The logic of the solution will prevail. However, if it just comes as a suggestion, left to the whims of the individual, then most Swedes will probably keep traveling. They will avoid the worst areas, and reroute to somewhere they perceive as safer.

You can take a lot of things away from a Swede, but don’t touch their overseas holiday.

Fatty Tuesday – Swedish style!

Today it’s ‘Fat Tuesday’ in Sweden, known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras around the world.

While in the UK we eat pancakes (today is even called Pancake Day) and in Latin America they scoff down fried bread, Swedes celebrate by eating the traditional cream Lent bun – the ‘semla’.

I’m also clearly going to indulge. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing this post. The semla is a creamy bun filled with delicious almond paste. They were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast, leading up to Easter. In the south of Sweden, they still refer to them as ‘fastlagsbullar’ – Shrovetide buns.

Nowadays however, semlas are usually sold anytime between Christmas and Easter. I just love them. I could eat a barrel load. But I’d end up looking like a barrel if I did. I love the taste of them, and the feeling of luxurious indulgence. I also love the knowledge that as you take a bite into a creamy semla, you are biting into over 500 years’ history of Scandinavian baking.

The word ‘semla’ comes from the Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour and originally referred just to the bun without any filling. As long ago as the 1500’s, bakers started to hollow out the middle of the bun and fill it with cream and butter. As ingredients became more available, bakers started adding almond and cardemon and the type of semla that we know today developed towards the end of the 1800’s. After rationing of sugar and dairy products ceased at the end of WW2, the semla took off and became very popular.

Nowadays the semla trend has reached new heights. Every year bakers around the country try to launch new types of semla, with their own spin on it -for example, the semla wrap, the semla burger, the semla layer cake, the semla cocktail, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. But I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun brimming over with whipped cream and almond paste.

And give it to me NOOOOWWW!!!

Buying sex in Sweden

In a recent police raid, over 40 men were arrested at temporary brothels in Stockholm. They were charged with buying, or attempting to buy sex. The brothels, which are also illegal in Sweden, were shut down.

So what is Sweden’s policy on prostitution? Well, it is criminalized and in fact Sweden has a trail-blazing approach to prostitution. In 1999, the Sex Purchase Act came into existence. This Act makes it illegal to purchase “sexual services” but not to sell them. So the purchaser is the criminal and not the prostitute. The rationale for criminalizing the buyer, but not the seller, was stated in the 1997 government proposition, namely that “…it is unreasonable to also criminalize the one who, at least in most cases, is the weaker party who is exploited by others who want to satisfy their own sexual desires”.

This law has since been copied and put in place in various other countries, such as Canada, Norway and Iceland. According to the statistics, the law has seen a huge decline in prostitution and trafficking, although it is by far not eradicated.

According to journalist Meghan Murphy, who has written extensively about prostitution- ‘The Swedish model is about more than just changing the law. It is also an idea — it is about changing the culture, and the culture is what needs to change as well as our legislative approach. What the model and its proponents are saying is that men are not entitled to access the bodies of women and girls, even if they pay.”

However, the law is controversial and is not without its critics.

Those who criticize it claim that the law isn’t as effective as people think and that sex work in Sweden is just driven more dangerously deeper underground. They also claim the law strips women of their control and their rights to do with their body as they wish to. An article on mic.com says ‘Sweden’s belief that prostitution is the most brutal expression of patriarchy has engendered a kind of paternalism about commodified sex that holds men responsible for their actions while assuming women can’t be. It wipes out the possibility of gray areas for men and women to be equal partners in exchanging money for sex.’ In other words, according to them, the feminist-driven Sex Purchase Act is entirely unfeminist.

So, the age old debate carries on. The discussion about if prostitution is inherently exploitative. Should it be criminalized, or can it be developed to maximize equality for everyone involved? In Sweden, the buyer is criminalized. In most other countries, the seller is criminalized. In Germany, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Hungary and Latvia prostitution is legal and regulated. Different approaches to the same situation.

What do you think?