You are not alone – living abroad in the time of corona

Living far away from family in these troubling times forces us to face unique challenges. But you are not alone, writes The Local's founder Paul Rapacioli.

You are not alone – living abroad in the time of corona
A woman holds her smartphone light out the window during a flashmob show of solidarity in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

As the effects of the coronavirus hit harder and deeper around the world, it's hard to think of another event in human history that has led to so many people so suddenly sharing the same fears: fears for their own health or for the health of their loved ones, fears for their work and future economic prospects, fears for their mental wellbeing during an extended period of isolation, fears for the world's ability to recover from such a blow.

But as the EU and its member states cut themselves off from the rest of the world and from each other, those of us who chose to live 'abroad' find our own daily challenges amplified by the virus and the desperate measures being taken to contain it.

We may not have had journeys booked for the coming weeks but the knowledge that we cannot return to our families and friends adds to the stress of this surreal situation.

Many of us feel cut adrift from the place we once called home, but it doesn't feel appropriate to talk about this sense of isolation when hundreds of millions are self-isolating or in forced lockdown and when enormous personal sacrifices are being made – because it was, after all, our choice to move abroad.

Nevertheless, underneath the stress that everyone is experiencing there is another layer of stress which is a product of living abroad. Here are some reflections on some of the underlying causes of that stress. It may be comforting to know that many of your fellow expats feel the same.

If you have felt that your limited grasp of the local language makes you more vulnerable in times of crisis, you are not alone.

For most of us who have moved abroad, the language is the greatest challenge and the challenge from which all other challenges naturally follow. Not just learning it but all the disadvantages of not knowing it until you have learned it. And even when we feel pretty competent, understanding most of what goes on around us and able to communicate most of the time, we are aware that we are presenting a one-dimensional version of ourselves that inhibits our ability to make friends and influence people.

However much we think we know a new language, there will always be situations where we are suddenly at a loss.

Perhaps it's when your car breaks down and you have to communicate with a mechanic, or when you start a new job, or when you try to buy a home. And dealing with health issues is the classic linguistic challenge. But don't panic. If you end up needing medical care you will almost certainly find that the medical practitioners you meet are very competent in English. And if you feel fine, then now might be a good time to brush up on the language.

An almost empty Stockholm on the morning of March 18th. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

If you feel insecure about local laws and how to keep up with any changes, you are not alone.

Rules and regulations – just like language – are absorbed as you grow up. They are the administrative extension of your culture and whether you agree or disagree with them, you have a lifelong context for the logic behind them. Living your life in the place where you grew up, your intuition is, by and large, a faithful guide to the principles of daily life.

When you arrive in a new country, your intuition is not exactly worthless but it is certainly worth less.

Every significant step you take needs to be verified, checked with a friend or partner or on a website – or with an official in a language that at least one of you doesn't understand perfectly.

The rules and practices that underpin work, housing, healthcare, education and every other aspect of daily life may not be that different to what you're used to, but they're different enough to mean that you can no longer rely on what you once knew.

Under normal circumstances this is unsettling and sometimes humiliating. But in times like these, when new recommendations and decrees are being issued every day – and which for some people can mean the difference between life and death – the difficulty of keeping up combined with the imperative to do so can be cripplingly stressful.

My colleagues at The Local are doing their best to keep you abreast of what's going on but don't be afraid to ask people (from a suitable distance, of course) what's going on and why.

If the country you live in has a different policy from the country you used to live in, don't assume that one of them is wrong. There are probably cultural, structural or political reasons for what is going on around you. You will learn a lot about your new home by observing how the authorities and the public react during this crisis.

If you are concerned about being cut adrift from your family and friends 'back home', you are not alone.

The guilt of not being there when ageing parents and vulnerable members of our family need us: we all experience this at the best of times and the longer you're away the more that sense of dread grows. We all feel it.

Then, when we have put down roots of our own, perhaps with partners, children, businesses or other responsibilities in our new country, there will be times when we are conflicted, when the love and support that we have to give is stretched to breaking point. It is the expat's burden.

We try to mitigate the problem of distance but nobody expected this. Nobody blames you for being stuck in your apartment in Rome or Berlin or Paris, or for being banned from leaving Sweden or Denmark or Switzerland.

And with Skype and Facetime and WhatsApp we can be there for the ones we love to a degree that was unimaginable a generation ago. Despite the distance, we can bring them into our lives and be a part of theirs. We can make them laugh and listen to their concerns. We can help them with their online banking or organize their shopping.

It's the best we can do. In fact, it's the best we've ever been able to do and, right now, it's not much less than we could do if we were in lockdown in the neighbouring town.

If you are concerned that you have not yet established a local support network, you are not alone.

One of the most-discussed challenges of living abroad is finding new friends – and how hard it is.

Friendships, by which I mean the deep, lifelong, you-can-count-on-me variety, are forged in the white heat of shared experience. The more extreme the experience, the more solid the friendships that will emerge.

By any measure, this crisis is an extreme experience for everyone. Everyone is worried; everyone, as Camus wrote in The Plague, “is in the same boat”. The playing field for friendship is levelled. Look around you, look to your neighbours and your colleagues. Everybody needs support right now. Don't wait for someone to be your friend: make the first move.

And when this passes, as it surely will, we will find that we, as foreigners, and the people around us will have gone through something together, something frightening and destructive but also something which is bringing the best out of people.

You may not know what the locals are talking about when they refer to television programmes they watched as children or how life was back in the nineties or the eighties or the seventies but you will have lived through this country's most challenging time together and that will always be more significant than different cultural backgrounds or language difficulties.

Those of us who decided to leave the comfort and ease of 'home' to seek a new life with new adventures and new relationships, we knew there would be challenges and complications. But we made our choice because we believed we were up to it.

We knew we had it in us to take a bold step in a different direction and to build a new life. We are open to other cultures, we are flexible enough to adapt to the world around us and we have the energy and the determination to learn new languages and make new friends and to hang in there until it comes good.

In a word, we are optimists – and we are not alone.

Paul Rapacioli founded The Local together with James Savage in 2004. Follow him on Twitter here, and read all The Local's coronavirus coverage from our journalists based across Europe here. If you have any questions, or if we can help you, please email us.

Member comments

  1. Really nice to hear these kinds of articles from you. We kind of know some of these already but it still feels nice to hear that someone else feels the same way. Keep up the good work. Again to everyone else, this too shall pass.

  2. I joined The Local because my son is studying in Denmark. He chose to stay during this crisis in his new country with his new friends. It’s a big step for a mum to be far away but I’m very proud of him and The Local is doing a great job of reporting and updating. Connection is everything. Glad I found you!

  3. Retired and living in Italy, my grasp of the language is still limited. This article really struck a chord for me – people don’t know the real you, because you can’t chat in the way you would if you were speaking in English.

    On a positive point, we feel safe in our small village community and we have good neighbours around us. Good luck and good health to all!

  4. A great Article, that definitely resounds worries I have. But I feel safer in Germany than if I lived elsewhere

  5. Thanks for this article and all the reports on the outbreak! I’m from Malaysia and am working in Copenhagen. I do feel the govt here has been implementing the best preventive measures so far and I hope we can mitigate the outbreak soon! My home country is worse too with 900 cases at the moment and I only hope it gets curtailed soon.

  6. A wonderful insight to life as an expatriot. Thank you for taking the time to share this. I can really concur with all you have written.

  7. Well done with your updates to keep us informed of all the new Covis-19 changes of law. Also the good advice as to how we can do the best to protect ourselves and other people. Great to have all this available in English so there are no misunderstandings of what best practice we should be following.

  8. Thanks for your publication! My husband and I are in Spain on work visas for a year and have struggled all day today with whether to go back to America. We’ve decided to stay, your publication makes me feel like there is a community out there going thru the same thing.

  9. Thank you for this. I’m from the UK and have kids back home who I haven’t seen for a month now. The disparity between the two countries in terms of Covid progression is such that I don’t think it is safe for me to get on a plane and then enter my successfully isolated house, even if I could get on a plane.

    I miss them all so much and I’m riddled with guilt, especially this weekend. It all feels unreal, like watching a film, when I look at the situation in the UK. I feel very removed from it.

    Anyway, thanks for the article, it’s nice to have some validation anyway.

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FACT CHECK: Did Sweden have lower pandemic mortality than Denmark and Norway?

A graphic published by the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper last week claimed that Sweden had the lowest excess mortality of all EU and Nordic counties between the start of 2020 and the end of 2022. We looked into whether this extraordinary claim is true (and it is, sort of).

FACT CHECK: Did Sweden have lower pandemic mortality than Denmark and Norway?

At one point in May 2020, Sweden had the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world, spurring newspapers like the New York Times and Time Magazine to present the country as a cautionary tale, a warning of how much more Covid-19 could ravage populations if strict enough measures were not applied. 

“Per million people, Sweden has suffered 40 percent more deaths than the United States, 12 times more than Norway, seven times more than Finland and six times more than Denmark,” the New York Times reported in July 2020

An article in Time in October 2020 declared Sweden’s Covid response “a disaster”, citing figures from Johns Hopkins University ranking Sweden’s per capita death rate as the 12th highest in the world.

So there was undisguised glee among lockdown sceptics when Svenska Dagbladet published data last week showing that in the pandemic years 2020, 2021 and 2022 Sweden’s excess mortality was the lowest, not only in the European Union, but also of all the Nordic countries, beating even global Covid-19 success stories, such as Norway, Denmark and Finland. 

Versions of the graph or links to the story were tweeted out by international anti-lockdown figures such as Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish sceptic of climate action, and Fraser Nelson, editor of Britain’s Spectator Magazine, while in Sweden columnists like Dagens Nyheter’s Alex Schulman and Svenska Dagbladet’s opinion editor Peter Wennblad showed that Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist who led Sweden’s strategy, had been “right all along”. 

Excess mortality — the number of people who die in a year compared to the number expected to die based on previous years — is seen by some statisticians as a better measure for comparing countries’ Covid-19 responses, as it is less vulnerable to differences in how Covid-19 deaths are reported. 

But are these figures legitimate, where do they come from, and do they show what they purport to show?

Here are the numbers used by SvD in its chart: 

Where do the numbers come from? 

Örjan Hemström, a statistician specialising in births and deaths at Sweden’s state statistics agency Statistics Sweden (SCB), put together the figures at the request of Svenska Dagbladet. 

He told The Local that the numbers published in the newspaper came from him and had not been doctored in any way by the journalists.

He did, however, point out that he had produced an alternative set of figures for the Nordic countries, which the newspaper chose not to use, in which Sweden had exactly the same excess mortality as Denmark and Norway. 

“I think they also could have published the computation I did for the Nordic countries of what was expected from the population predictions,” he said of the way SvD had used his numbers. “It takes into consideration trends in mortality by age and sex. The excess deaths were more similar for Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Almost the same.” 

Here are Hemström’s alternative numbers: 

There are two basic ways of measuring excess mortality. The simplest, and the one used by SvD/SCB, is to simply compare the death rates in the relevant period with the mean of previous years, normally five years. 

More sophisticated measures attempt to estimate the expected number of deaths by extending mortality trends seen in a certain country, adjusting for the age of the population and other factors. But this can lead to results to vary significantly depending on how mortality trends and expected mortality are calculated. 

The issue with the analysis in the SvD graph is that compares deaths in the pandemic years to deaths over just three years, a mean of 2017-2019, and does not properly take into account Sweden’s longstanding declining mortality trend, or the gently rising mortality trend in some other countries where mortality is creeping upwards due to an ageing population, such as Finland. 

“It’s very difficult to compare countries and the longer the pandemic goes on for the harder it is, because you need a proper baseline, and that baseline depends on what happened before,” Karin Modig, an epidemiologist at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute whose research focuses on ageing populations, told The Local.

“As soon as you compare between countries, it’s more difficult because countries have different trends of mortality, they have different age structures, and in the pandemic they might have had different seasonal variations.” 

She described analyses such as Hemström’s as “quite crude”. 

In an interview with SvD to accompany the graph, Tegnell also pushed back against giving the numbers too much weight. 

“Mortality doesn’t tell the whole story about what effect a pandemic has had on different countries,” he said. “The excess mortality measure has its weaknesses and depends a lot on the demographic structures of countries, but anyway, when it comes to that measure, it looks like Sweden managed to do quite well.”

Do the numbers match those provided by other international experts and media? 

Sweden’s excess mortality over the three years of the pandemic is certainly below average worldwide, but in most other analyses it remains higher than those of Norway and Denmark. 

A ranking of excess mortality put together by Our World in Data for the same period as the SvD/SCB table estimates Sweden’s excess mortality between the start of 2020 and the end of 2022 at 5.62 percent, considerably more than the 4.4 percent SvD claims, and above that of Norway on 5.08 percent and Denmark on 2.52 percent. 

The Economist newspaper also put together an estimate, using their own method based on projected deaths. In this estimate, Sweden also has a higher rate of excess deaths than Denmark and Norway (but not than Finland).   

Our World in Data uses the estimate produced by Ariel Karlinsky and Dmitry Kobak, who manage the World Mortality Dataset (WMD). To produce the estimate, they fit a regression model for each region using historical deaths data from 2015–2019, so a time period of five years rather than the three used by SCB.

What’s clear, is that, whatever method you use, Sweden and the other Nordic countries are among the countries with the lowest excess mortality over the pandemic. 

“Most methods seem to put Sweden and the other Nordic countries among the countries in Europe with the lowest cumulative excess deaths for 2020-2022,” Preben Aavitsland, the Director for Surveillance and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, told The Local.

So if Sweden had similar excess mortality to those of the other Nordics over the period, does that mean it had a similar Covid-19 death rate?

No. Sweden’s per capita death rate from Covid-19 over the period covered by the SvD/SCB figures, at 2,249 per million people, is still more than double Norway’s 959 per million, 60 percent more than the 1,409 per million who died in Denmark, and more than 50 percent more than the 1,612 per million who died in Finland. 

Sweden’s death rate is now much closer to those of the other Nordic countries than it was at the end of 2020, however, something Aavitsland put down to the higher number of Covid-19 deaths seen in his country in the later years of the pandemic. 

“The most striking difference between Sweden and the other Nordic countries is that only Sweden had large excess mortality in 2020 and the winter of 2020-21,” Aavitsland explained. “In 2022, the field levelled out as the other countries also had excess mortality when most of the population was infected by the omicron variant after all measures had been lifted.”

So why, if the Covid-19 death rates are still so different, are the excess mortality rates so similar?

This largely reflects the fact that many of those who died in Sweden in the first year of the pandemic were elderly people in care homes who would have died anyway by the end of 2022. 

About 90 percent of Covid-19 deaths were in people above 70, Aavitsland pointed out, adding that this is the same age group where you find around 80 percent of all deaths, regardless of cause, in a Scandinavian country. 

“My interpretation is that in the first year of the pandemic, say March 2020 – February 2021, Sweden had several thousand excess deaths among the elderly, including nursing home residents,” he said. “Most of this was caused by Covid-19. In the other [Nordic] countries, more people like these survived, but they died in 2022. The other countries managed to delay some deaths, but now, three years after, we end up at around the same place.” 

So does that mean Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell was right all along? 

It depends on how you view the years lost by the several thousand elderly people who caught Covid-19 and died in Sweden in the first wave because Sweden did not follow the example of Denmark, Norway, and Finland and bring in a short three-week lockdown in March and April 2020. Were those two years worth the greater restrictions imposed in Sweden’s neighbours? 

Tegnell himself probably said it best in the SvD interview. 

“You’ve got to remember that a lot of people died in the pandemic, which is of course terrible in many ways, not least for their many loved ones who were affected, so you need to be a bit humble when presented with these kinds of figures.”