For those of you who have bought into the myth that Sweden is doing nothing to combat the epidemic, here is a photo of downtown Stockholm. It was taken today by a friend of mine at 11.00am. The normally bustling streets of the capital are deserted. It is admittedly a ‘bridge day’ between a public holiday and a weekend, but even so, the streets are usually much busier than this.
This is a testimony to the fact that most Swedes are taking it seriously.
I moved to Sweden in October 1994, and was due to return to the UK to visit family the following May. May 13th in fact. Exactly 25 years ago today.
I arrived at Arlanda airport in Stockholm to be informed that the plane was delayed due to bad weather. The weather was high winds and snow. SNOW! On May 13th! When I finally arrived in the UK, I arrived to a London basking in sunshine and its citizens walking around in T-shirts and shorts. As you can understand, I questioned my choice of moving to Sweden at that point.
Since then May 13th 1995 has held the shittiest weather record for me. Until today that is – May 13th 2020.
Last night it snowed. Tonight it is forecast to snow and be minus degrees. Today’s weather is a freezing drizzle. It’s even worse further north in the country. This sucks for May.
However maybe there is a positive side to this. I’m not sure what nature was saying 25 years ago, but today the message seems clear. The streets are mostly deserted and the cafe terraces are abandoned. This is surely nature’s way of telling us to stay the hell at home.
I have recently been reminiscing a lot about my University days. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the self isolation that makes us dig deeper, and further back. Old faces and forgotten names have popped into my head – Ginger Bill, Gertie the Goth, Posh Sarah, and her with the dislocating knees. Something Peacock, I believe.
Anyway, I was actually in touch with an old friend yesterday – Bob from Yorkshire – a person I probably haven’t physically met since 1988. Concerned about the state of affairs in the UK, he mentioned that he follows my writing and enjoys reading about Sweden. He found it ‘reassuring’ to know that ‘some places in the world still hold a candle, however small, to a more egalitarian future’.
In fact, never has this comment been more relevant than today – May 1st. In Sweden, and in many other countries, May 1st has been embraced as the International Workers’ Day. In 1938, May 1st became Sweden’s first non-religious public holiday and has been an important celebration of class equality, labourers and the working classes since then.
Usually, around Sweden, traffic is shut off, huge flag-waving demonstrations are held and people gather to hear speeches from their politicians and representatives – most commonly from the political left. However, these are corona times and all demonstrations and large gatherings are banned.
So this year will be different. Instead of seeing the politicians on the streets, they are coming onto our screens. For example, at 11am, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, will be broadcasting his May 1st speech to the nation over Facebook and You Tube. As a Social Democrat, he will apparently talk about what kind of society Sweden should be. I’m sure it’s going to be right up Bob’s alley.
So let’s celebrate together, separately. Remember to stay home, avoid crowds and wash your hands. This is a day for solidarity. As a wise man once said, we might not be in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.
I love watching the Swedes. That is, in fact, what this whole blog is based on. Usually I’m struck with admiration and curiosity, sometimes outrage and anger. But right now, disappointment is the biggest emotion I’m feeling.
Sweden is an amazing country that has handled the corona pandemic in a very different way from the rest of the world. This is culturally not so surprising as Sweden is a country that often deviates from the norm. Instead of draconian lock downs, Sweden’s approach is based on personal responsibility, solidarity and common sense.
So why my disappointment? Well, a couple of reasons.
The instructions about social distancing are very clear. Avoid crowds and stand or sit 2 meters away from the nearest person. And yet, many Swedes are not doing this. On outside restaurants and cafe terraces, people are packed together like sardines. In parks and squares, people are squeezed onto shared picnic blankets. What is it about social distancing that people don’t understand? Be sociable yes, but be physically distanced. It’s so easy that it’s ridiculous to not follow it.
The second source for my disappointment is the lack of perseverance that seems to be prevailing. After a few weeks of self control, it looks like many Swedes have tired of it. They think that the worst is over. They couldn’t be more wrong. Now is not the time to relax. Cases are increasing, not decreasing. Now is the time to persevere, to work from home if possible, to keep washing hands and keep your distance. Even if the sun is shining and the weather is warmer.
I am sure my disappointment is temporary. But I would like to say to everybody in Sweden – be happy things are more relaxed here but do follow the instructions of the authorities. It’s that simple. If we all do it, it will all be over sooner. And then we can all sit in the sun in the park.
In the meantime, I’ll be watching the Swedes – from a comfortable distance.
I remember the first Swedish film I ever saw. I was living in London, and there was a film festival in a cinema on the South Bank. I’d never heard of the film, but had heard of the author who’s book it was based on – Astrid Lindgren. The film was called ‘Ronja, the robber’s daughter’, and it was a dramatic romp set in the Viking era. I loved it.
Since then, I’ve seen many Swedish films, of varying quality, from Christmas romcoms to Bergman. The Swedish film industry is alive and kicking, and many films are released in the Swedish language every year. Sweden even has its own center of film-making lovingly nick-named Trollywood.
If you’re self-isolated at home and you’d like to watch a Swedish film, here are some that I think are good, in no particular order:
1. ‘Monica Z’ – drama about Swedish jazz legend Monica Zetterlund, played amazingly by singer Edda Magnusson.
2. ‘Border’ (Gräns) – dark drama about a border guard who can smell fear
3. ‘As it is in heaven’ (Så som i himmelen) – drama about a famous conductor who retires to a remote village and takes over the local choir. Drama ensues.
4. ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (Män som hatar kvinnor) – a action thriller about legendary anti-hero Lisbet Salander and a twisted murder mystery plot. Starring Noomi Rapace.
5. ‘House of Angels’ (Änglagård) – a comedy drama about a modern young woman who inherits a house from her mother in a small rural village. But she is not welcomed by all.
6. ‘The Dalecarlians’ (Masjävlarna) – a comedy drama about a woman who visits her hometown to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. An urban-rural clash takes centre stage. Starring ‘The Bridge’s Sofia Helin.
7. ‘Fanny and Alexander’ – a long Bergman film about a wealthy family in Uppsala. A classic Christmas saga and probably the only Bergman film that everybody likes.
8. ‘Let the Right One in’ (Låt den rätte kommer in) – a drama horror film about a vampire child living in a dark Stockholm suburb
9. ’My life as a dog’ (Mitt liv som hund) – a drama about a young boy and his odd way of dealing with life’s set backs.
10. ’The Hunters’ (Jägarna) – a drama thriller about a wicked group of hunters in the north of Sweden.
11. ’A man called Ove’ (en man som heter Ove) – a drama comedy based on the best-selling novel about the adventures of a grumpy, old man in a Swedish small town.
12. ‘Show me Love’ (Fucking Åmål) – a drama comedy love story between two young girls in the conservative town of Åmål.
In the UK, Easter eggs are usually bought ready-made. The big egg is itself made of chocolate, and inside is a small bag of more chocolates. It is wrapped in colourful packaging, and marketed around a particular brand of chocolate such as Maltesers, or Buttons or Dairy Milk.
For me that was what an Easter egg liked like. Until I moved to Sweden. Here, Easter eggs look quite different. The Swedish egg is usually an inedible cardboard egg, emblazoned with colourful Easter motifs. It can also be made of tin or porcelain. So, the egg itself is also the packaging. Inside the egg, is pick ‘n’ mix, usually consisting of a few candied eggs and other well-chosen sweets such as cola bottles, sour dummies and fudge. This style of Easter egg was actually also popular in the UK around the reign of Queen Victoria.
This year, however, manufacturers of pick ‘n’ mix sweets have reported a huge decline in sales. This is probably due to the corona virus and people’s concern about hygiene.
Giving Easter eggs as gifts in Sweden became popular in the 1800’s and was facilitated by the paper-making industry. Although decorating eggs dates further back, to the 1600’s, when Swedes would paint eggs to celebrate the spring.
Whatever the type of egg the Easter bunny brings you this year, I hope you enjoy it!
In the wake of covid-19, the National Agency of Public Health has provided the Swedish population with recommendations and advice. However, it seems that these very words ‘recommendation’ (rekommendation) and ‘advice’ (råd) are causing problems for many people.
How do you understand the word ‘recommendation’? Maybe it’s a friend who is making a suggestion to you? Or a family member who is promoting a certain behaviour? Or a respected critic who is letting you know what restaurant you should eat at? For most of us, the words ‘recommendation’ and ‘advice’ imply a suggestion that we can decide to listen to or not, act on or not. This is how we understand it.
But it doesn’t always mean this and this is where linguistic confusion is arising. As I understand it in Swedish, when ‘recommendation’ or ‘advice’ is used by a government authority it is not something to be taken as a suggestion – it is a serious instruction that has to be followed. It is the strongest action an authority can take. The next step is a law change decided by the parliament.
So when the Swedish Agency for Public Health recommends that we stand 2 meters apart, it is not a recommendation as we might understand it, it is a strict instruction, and does not include a high level of individual choice. It is the step before criminalising something.
In his press briefing today, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said ‘allmänna råd från myndigheter är ingen lösa tips. Det förväntas att (alla) som omfattas av råden följer dem. Inte ibland, utan varje dag och varje minut.’ This translates roughly as ’general advice from an authority is not just a tip. Everybody who is covered by this advice is expected to follow it. Not just sometimes, but every day and every minute.’
This confusion between colloquial terminology and governmental terminology can explain a lot of the behaviour and attitudes we see around us. People are not defying the authorities, they just think that recommendations are elective.
But the bottom line is this – we do not have a choice, even though we might interpret it so. We are obliged to all follow the instructions we are provided with. Zealously.
If we do this, we avoid criminalization and curfew and hopefully can together quickly crush corona.
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.
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.
Do you know of any other acts of kindness in Sweden or wherever you are? Please share!