OPINION: ‘The pandemic isn’t over until every last one of us is safe’

What happens when part of the population no longer follows Sweden's voluntary coronavirus rules? Nothing, apart from more people falling ill, writes Lisa Bjurwald in this opinion piece. But the pandemic isn't over, she writes – not for hospitals, not for risk groups, and not for you.

Skiers queuing in the snow in Sälen, central Sweden
A ski resort in Sälen, central Sweden, in early March. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

The first outdoor fad of the Swedish corona winter of 2021 was sledding on cemeteries. Now, pandemic after-skis are all the rage, causing a lot of outrage, too. For as a large part of the capital’s moneyed middle class head to resorts such as Åre and Sälen during this week’s winter sports break, the rest of Stockholm’s families are left paying the price, with schools closed physically for 13-18-year-olds the following week to prevent further spread of Covid-19. This on the orders of the county’s medical officer for communicable diseases (inducing much anxiety for those with children under that particular age).

Sweden may still uphold the ideal of equality, but in reality, there are huge gaps between the haves and the have-nots, between inner city elites and multicultural suburbs, between those forced to work in unsafe milieus such as taxis and metros during a pandemic and the self-employed middle class who can easily work from home and avoid falling ill. As a Swedish cartoonist captured it this week: “There won’t be any skiing as usual this year,” a family in a posh suburban villa laments. “As usual, there won’t be any skiing this year,” counters the family in a high-rise across the tracks.

The price of a winter holiday in Sweden tells you what a small percentage of the population can actually afford it. A ski pass in fashionable Åre is 2,640 kronor (approximately $314) per adult per week, 2,110 kronor per child (age 7-17). Add at least 10,000 kronor for a four-bed cabin or similar (prices run much higher if you book late) and the total for a family of four would be at least 20,000 kronor – add to that the cost of fuel, food, skiing gear, possible car hire and so on.

Not that it’s the price that should turn people off this year. Sweden holds the tragic Nordic record of Covid deaths, our 13,000 lost lives far exceeding that of neighbouring Finland, Norway and Denmark put together. A third wave is on its way (or already here, depending on who you ask), and as the media is increasingly reporting, a debilitating post-Covid disease – long-haul Covid – is affecting at least tens of thousands of Swedes (statistics are lacking in many respects), including the young and previously healthy. No one yet knows for how long.

Sweden’s pandemic response is built on individual responsibility in exchange for less Covid restrictions than the rest of the world, with cafés, shopping malls and so on staying open throughout the crisis, which many understandably confused readers have questioned in The Local’s articles. In essence: Keep your distance, and you get to keep your freedom.

But what happens when a part of the population no longer adheres to these rules, despite infections running rampant? In reality, nothing at all – apart, of course, from a greater risk of people getting sick. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven et al can wave their fingers all they want, using a grave rhetoric about “shared responsibilities” and “staying strong, hanging in there” (håll i och håll ut). But there are no fines or other consequences for throwing crammed after-ski parties or failing to wear a face mask on local transport. If you want to live your life as if the pandemic is over, there’s little stopping you from doing so.

But it’s not over for our exhausted health care workers, who on Tuesday reported that the pressure is increasing on the country’s emergency wards, with an increase too in the amount of younger patients taken seriously ill.

It’s not over for our isolated elderly, who – in their hundreds of thousands – are waiting patiently for their vaccine ticket back to a normal life, bypassed in the official queue by everyone from vaccine-stealing managers and their families to non-essential health care workers, even teenagers (!).

And, speaking of individual responsibilities, it’s not over for you, either. Not until every last one of us is safe.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here.

Member comments

  1. Thank you for this column dear Lisa Bjurwald! This pandemic has revealed the problematic downside of the very distributed responsibilities in Sweden that work so well in ‘peaceful’ times: nobody is responsible right now, and there is no clear direction, creating space for rampant incompetence, arrogance (hey WHO, look how good we ski without masks) and a lot of fear and insecurity when faced with the minutiae of this pandemic. I am experiencing this as a rapid erosion of compassion and an infantile and an entitled and ridiculous wish for a return to normal (or in fact, a refusal to even leave ‘normal’ in the first place in order to show solidarity towards other members of society).
    I hope Sweden and the Swedes reclaim their hearts and brains before this is over.

  2. Lisa that is a thoughtful, balanced piece. Thoughtfulness and balance today are as rare as successful Covid strategies are.

    Lisa, you wrote this paragraph: “Sweden’s pandemic response is built on individual responsibility in exchange for less Covid restrictions than the rest of the world, with cafés, shopping malls and so on staying open throughout the crisis, which many understandably confused readers have questioned in The Local’s articles. In essence: Keep your distance, and you get to keep your freedom.”

    But Lisa, who decided that this approach was a better one to follow than say Norway or Finland? The real truth is that in Sweden a small secret bunch of people in FHM thought it would be good to play a game, the game of testing whether (for the first time in medical history) you can engineer “immunity” by selective control of a contagious agent. They assumed the agent was “the flu”. Unfortunately for them, and for 100,000s of Swedes, it is not at all like the ‘flu. While many warned them of this dangerous delusional policy, the Swedish constitution of 1974 allowed them to pursue it anyhow. The politicians notionally in charge were absent – not competent enough, and not brave enough to put the welfare of the people of the country they serve above their own, narrow, political interests.

    My faith in Sweden as a place of sagacity, togetherness and common-sense has been permanently shattered. As have the lives of 13,000+ who have died, and over 100,000 with longer-term issues, which your FHM does not even acknowledge (because if it did, it would have to take responsibility). In a country with a unique relationship between the individual, the family, and the state (arising from the Folkhemmet ideals of the 1930s, 1940s and Per Albin Hanssen and Tage Erlander), it is a dangerous game to rely on the individual. In Sweden, no-one takes any individual responsibility, which is why it is rich in both tragedy and irony that the supposed pandemic response is dependent on individual decisions. It is pretty clear it has not gone well. The biggest tragedy of all, will be the cover up and denial, for about say 20-30 years, when admissions and apologies will finally be made (once those responsible have passed on). The decision to reject face masks was criminal, as a single example. Criminal. Unsupported by science, just arrogant assertion. Much like the forced sterilisations of the mentally ill and poor in Swedish towns and institutions from 1934 to 1976.

    A people that do not learn from their mistakes continue to make them, ad nauseam. This is said in deep sadness, not schadenfreude.

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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.