Last week, I wrote that Sweden was becoming an outlier in how it is dealing with the new coronavirus. Now it seems the rest of the world has noticed. I think I have to go back to the refugee crisis of 2015 to find as many international hot takes about Sweden as this week.
Is Sweden not implementing stricter restrictions on its people because they are horribly naive and complacent? Is it because decisions are generally made by expert authorities, rather than political ministers? Is it because they place a high premium on individual responsibility and trust?
Are tougher rules not needed because people follow them anyway? Or are people still going out to restaurants, ski trips to the mountains, and hanging out with friends as usual, not a care in the world?
The honest answer is that there's a grain of truth in almost everything.
It's also the slightly more boring answer, because it makes it harder to talk about Sweden as this peculiar country in the north where everything is either perfect paradise or a collapsing hellhole.
There are now stricter rules in place for bars and restaurants, and public gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned. But not much else has changed, while the entire world has changed in other places.
An outdoor restaurant in Stockholm on Thursday. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
Compare the Swedish guidelines to what the Danes were told by their government on Monday: “Cancel Easter lunch. Postpone family visits. Don't go sightseeing around the country.” The Swedish Public Health Agency's corresponding recommendation is: “Ahead of the breaks and Easter, it is important to consider whether planned travel in Sweden is necessary to carry out.”
Even the official recommendations leave a lot of room for interpretation. Should you think of them as typically bureaucratic Swedish understatements and assume that you are in fact expected to fall in line and make sensible decisions, or should you think that as long as there are no rules it's a free-for-all?
“We can't legislate and ban everything. It's also a question of common-sense manners,” said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, telling people off for not following recommendations. The translation of the last bit is not perfect. He used the word folkvett, the moral sense that every person is expected to have without being taught, and a word every Swede will instinctively recognise as something seen as a very, very bad thing not to have.
Still, it tends to be one of those emotional conjugations: I have common sense, you are careless, those people over there are pig-headed fools who go partying during a pandemic. When the recommendations are open to interpretation, how do you know when you or someone else have crossed an invisible line?
You can watch the Public Health Agency's press conferences (in Swedish) here. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
Sweden's health authorities have been giving daily press conferences for weeks, their experts patiently answering questions without a hint of annoyance. Here at The Local, we have been trying to get interviews with their experts this week, without luck. We were told to come to the press conference in Stockholm in person instead. That contrasts with the official advice, which remains to work from home if you can.
It seems much of the communication is based on a time when all Swedes watched the same television channel, all read the same newspapers, spoke the same language. But not even Swedes only read Swedish news these days. And The Local's international readers get their information from many different sources: Swedish news, us, their home country, other global media. How do you know who to trust?
We don't know whose strategy will turn out to be right – maybe we will never know. There are reasons for Sweden's decisions; we have written about the debate for and against on The Local. The people making the decisions are trained epidemiologists; they may be wrong or right, but they are not experimenting.
But anyone can see that other countries are making other decisions. That much is obvious. The mixed messages are plentiful, and they seem to make people want to pick sides, dig their heels in, argue that in Sweden we have a system and it works; or no, Swedes always think they know best but they don't.
I hear from international readers who no longer feel welcome here, because they have been told that their concern comes from not truly understanding Sweden. I also know the feeling of needing to place your trust in someone to help see us through this crisis, and the knee-jerk fear when someone else shakes that pillar. I worry that there is a growing divide between us, when our fears may be more similar than we think.
I wish this could all bring us closer instead. I wish people would stop talking down to friends and colleagues who are afraid that the wrong decisions are being made; they know just as much as you do. But equally, don't assume that people who choose to trust the authorities to make these decisions are not just as afraid as you are.
This is unknown territory for most of us. We need each other more than ever.
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