With bans around Europe lifting, it is time to start thinking about summer holidays. At least gingerly. Some people are waiting until the autumn to be safe, and spending their summers in ‘staycation’ mode – called ‘hemester’ or ‘svemester’ in Swedish. But for others, the pull to warmer climes is too strong.
This is the official website of Sweden’s embassies and consulates. It is updated on a daily basis and has the latest information on corona restrictions. You can search specific countries and see what applies there.
In a historical move, Sweden is closing its borders to foreigners from Saturday 6 February. The only way in to the country is if travellers can show evidence of a negative COVID 19 test taken within the previous 48 hours.
The government says that this is to prevent the spread of the British strain into Sweden. Although, the strain is already here the hope is that this entry ban will significantly reduce its progress.
The ban will last until 31 March 2021.
So if you are planning a trip to Sweden, make sure you take a test before you depart. And make sure you bring evidence of your negative result with you. Tests will not be offered at the Swedish border, and you will be sent back home.
I remember walking around Stockholm when I had recently moved here. It was a pitch black Saturday evening in November, cold and crisp. As I approached a majestic church, I noticed that it was shimmering from the grave yard. This yellow and white light slowly flickered and cast shadows on the gravestones and the church wall. As if drawn by a magic spell, I walked up to the church and looked over the wall.
The sight that met my eyes was spectacular and serene at the same time. Hundreds of candles were spread around the cemetery, decorating each of the graves. In the memory grove a bright blazing blanket of candles lit up the area. It was as if the spirits of the dead had come out to play.
In Sweden, the Saturday between 31 October and 6 November is All Saints’ Day (the Sunday after All Saints’ Day is called All Souls’ Day to separate between the saints and the dead). Since the 1800’s Swedes have, during this weekend, made pilgrimage to graveyards up and down the country to decorate the graves with candle light and to pay respect to the dead.
It is a much more elegant and atmospheric tradition than the typical Halloween parties that otherwise have become very popular in Sweden. It is a truly beautiful experience to walk through the churchyards this weekend. In the pitch black November Nordic darkness, it is a peaceful reminder of those who have gone before us.
This year is a bit different however. The corona pandemic has led to restrictions and there is a recommendation to refrain from going to cemeteries this weekend. We should honour our dead, but try not to contribute to the spread of the virus at the same time. So if you plan to head to your nearest cemetery anyway, make sure to keep distance to the other visitors, and make the visit quick. Alternatively, light a candle in your own garden, or balcony this year.
It is well known that Sweden has taken a different approach to the pandemic, one that didn’t involve totally locking down society and enforcing quarantine and curfew. Instead, the Swedish way relied on the responsibility of the population to go about life, with some restrictions and be careful. Time will tell if this was the right choice in the long run.
In the short run, we see that Sweden has a relatively high incidence of death from Covid-19. It is of course hard to compare figures, because it depends on what and how you are counting. Sweden cross checks against the death register and counts every death, in every location. Not just in hospitals, or in intensive care units. Because the virus got into care homes, the vast majority of deaths is unfortunately found in the over 80 age group.
It seems like Sweden is now paying a price for the more relaxed corona strategy. With countries around the world slowly opening up, they have released lists of approved countries from where tourists are allowed. Sweden is not on many of these lists. Swedes are perceived as plague-carrying high risk tourists.
Sweden’s neighbours Finland, Norway and Denmark have opened up for travel after their lockdowns. But the borders to Sweden remain closed. Sweden has become the social pariah of Scandinavia. Norway released an interesting decision this week. No traveling to Sweden, except to the Swedish Baltic island of Gotland. However, domestic travel is allowed in Sweden, so the popular holiday island of Gotland will be packed with Swedes, mostly from Stockholm, crammed in together with Norwegian tourists. Not sure how Norway was thinking on that one.
Of course, as time goes on, Swedish tourists will be welcome again around the world. As Sweden’s death toll reduces, and the virus ebbs out, borders will open again. It’s just an usual situation right now for Swedes to find themselves unpopular.
So, staycation is the melody of summer 2020. My plans include a socially-distanced trip to lake Vättern, and a road trip up north. I’m also going to explore my hometown of Stockholm more.
If you’re staying in Sweden, what do you plan to do?
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.
Out walking today, I passed through one of Stockholm’s biggest building sites – the Slussen renovation. As I approached, I saw a guard in a reflective vest and holding a red flag. He was stopping pedestrians from getting through, as the construction company was blasting into the rock to make a service tunnel. And he waved at me and told me to wait.
It was going to take 10 minutes to safely blast, so I stepped to the side and stood in the sun to warm my face. And waited.
From behind me, a middle-aged man approaches the guard and asks what was happening. The guard informs him of the on-going blasting. ‘But I need to get through’ the man says. ‘You’ll have to wait’ says the guard. ‘I can’t wait, this is very inconvenient’, the man replies. ‘You have to’ says the guard. The man folds his arms, and scowls in silence.
A few minutes later a young woman arrives. She walks right past the waiting crowd that has now formed. She approaches the guard. ‘I have to get through’. ‘You have to wait’ says the guard. ‘No I can’t do that, let me through’ replies the woman. ‘It is not safe’ answers the guard, ‘they are blasting and it is dangerous to walk past’. ‘I’ll be quick’ says the woman. ‘No,’ responds the guard, ‘you have to wait’.
Two minutes later, a voice on the guard’s walkie-talkie allows us to continue through. The middle-aged man stomps off, the young woman doesn’t move – swiping her mobile.
It often seems to me that some people have a hard time accepting instructions. Even if there are signs, or barriers or even a guard with a red flag, they seem to think they are not affected by it. Because they are in a hurry or it is inconvenient. It’s like saying ‘Yes, I understand, but it doesn’t apply to me, right?’
Might these be the same type of people who, despite strong recommendations from the government, nevertheless squeeze into public transport, hang close together in restaurants and still plan to travel away for Easter?
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.
A quote from Charles M Schultz in the comic strip Peanuts goes like this ‘Worrying won’t stop the bad stuff from happening, it just stops you from enjoying the good’. Here, he is referring to our personal ability to manage a VUCA world.
Have you heard of the acronym VUCA? It’s a very useful term right now.
Defined on Wiki, VUCA was first used in the leadership theories of Bennis and Nanus to describe or to reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations.
V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and confusion that surrounds organization.
A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.
VUCA often impacts how individuals and organisations make decisions, plan forward, manage risks, foster change and solve problems. Our ability to operate in a VUCA world is defined by our fear, comfort levels, optimism and by how much we try to control or avoid uncertainty.
More than ever, we are living in a VUCA world. None of us know how this corona virus epidemic will end. Here in Sweden, society seems to be shutting down and the economy is in the middle of a major crisis. A global recession seems inevitable.
So how do we get through it?
Our ability to get through this without emotional breakdown does not come from panic, rumour and phobia.
According to Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, it calls for a response which he calls VUCA 2.0: Vision, Understanding, Courage and Adaptability. From the government, from employers and from each individual. Thinking and acting in this way provides us with the stability and psychological safety we will need to get through to the other side.
So, how do you personally handle the concept of VUCA?