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OPINION: The pandemic has caused divides and damaged friendships in Sweden

Socialising has been restricted in Sweden during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the impact on friendships goes beyond that, writes Lisa Bjurwald. Can friendships survive a crisis that has split the country into two distinct camps?

OPINION: The pandemic has caused divides and damaged friendships in Sweden
A sign in Stockholm reminds people to limit socialising to only 'a few friends', but it's not only the regulations that have impacted friendships. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

“I don’t know how I’m going to deal with post-pandemic life in Sweden,” a well-established journalist wrote on Facebook recently. “My entire view of life, of other Swedes, of the society we live in has been completely turned on its head. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.”

Tellingly, the comments field was a mish-mash of those who exclaimed how “spot on!” the writer was (“husband and I are thinking of emigrating”), and those who had no idea what he was on about. Was something going on in his personal life, or why was he so upset?

It’s hard to think of another issue in recent years – even in a lifetime – that’s been so divisive in our social lives as the Covid-19 pandemic (except, of course, the Blur vs Oasis Brit-pop battle of the mid-’90’s. Still not speaking to the Blur phalanx). Some of my friendships are so fragile at this point that it feels like they could shatter into a thousand pieces the minute this is all over – and I know I’m not alone.

Why? For one, the advent of Covid-19 is not a political or cultural phenomenon that can be easily brushed aside, a “the two of us go way back, our friendship is beyond petty politics” that can be applied to matters like the left-right political divide. The pandemic touches upon the most fundamental issues of our existence; not just the obvious one of life and death, but who we are as citizens, small parts of a greater, 10 million-plus strong Us. Your actions during the pandemic speak volumes about what kind of person you are, no matter how glossy your Instagram or how much you donate to Amnesty each month.

Of course, there are two sides of this Covid social war, and a new, self-explanatory Swedish word for us holding forth in the socially distanced (or “dull,” “judgmental”) camp: coronamoralister.

By some, we’re seen as epic party-poopers, wagging our fingers at those free-loving spirits who’ve decided the pandemic is over… because they say so. My favourite put-down over the past year has got to be coronarädd (afraid of the coronavirus). Maintaining the proper distance and wearing a mask at a brief meeting, the person uttering it did so without any malice, which just made it more absurd: “You who are coronarädd will notice that…”. Wait, say what?

It’s worth considering that the singular Swedish strategy could have contributed to labels such as coronamoralist and coronarädd.

When a nation doesn’t go for extensive risk-minimizing in the face of a threat, a large part of the population is bound to interpret said threat as a minor one – thus brushing off those who follow “recommendations” as if they were the law as frightened sheep, with a clear slant towards ridicule.

Not to mention wearing a mask despite Swedish authorities going to great lengths in pointing out how useless it is. I’ve been smacked down with coronahaverist (“corona querulant”) for that one.

So how on earth are our friendships going to survive these polarising times? According to a poll published last month, all of them won’t. 43 percent of Swedes say their friendships have suffered during the pandemic, and 33 percent have a worse
relationship with their relatives now than before Covid-19. Friendships are at a particularly rough place in the Swedish capital: more than every other Stockholmer says their friendships are worse off today. And it’s probably not just because of social distancing.

“My friends are not taking the pandemic seriously,” a reader recently lamented to the resident Svenska Dagbladet psychologist. “I can’t stand their egoism. Should I stop socialising with them?”

In essence, the advice was: You’re not alone in being annoyed with friends and family who aren’t acting responsibly. But it’s difficult to always do the right thing, especially when in a prolonged crisis, and your friendships deserve you having another go at talking sense into your friends.

But perhaps some friendships shouldn’t survive? It’s just as easy getting stuck in a dull non-romantic relationship as in the romantic variety, but we’re often less inclined to cut off the platonic ones. From a Swedish perspective, it could be because of our fear of confrontations – and because we don’t know how to replace them. Studies have long shown that Swedes, and international people who move here, struggle to make new friends. Stockholm is even in the last place of the Friends & Socializing chart of Expat Insider’s Getting Settled 2020 Index.

Well, here’s an opportunity for improvement. If you don’t share fundamental values with your
friends, why bother keeping up the charade? Now is a great time to tighten the bonds with those whom we do share our core values with.

More from Lisa Bjurwald:

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.

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Member comments

  1. I think if any survey came out with results as generic as to answer the question ” has the pandemic adversely affected your family and friendship relationships?” the answer would have to be a resounding “yes”. That doesn’t mean that people have conflicting views on how strictly or lax their approach to the pandemic has been. Nor does the testimony of one psychologist.

    The author of this piece does not state explicitly her views on how people are behaving in Sweden, but implicitly she suggests that in general people are not being as careful as they could be.

    My experience in Sweden is that people have been very careful in how they interact with others. While there are always people who disregard recommendations, in my view, by and large Swedish people have been taking matters seriously.

    Sweden is alone in the world in trusting its population to do the right thing, treating them like adults and not enforcing total lockdowns which show no evidence of resulting in a better result vis a vis minimizing the effects of the pandemic.

    Countries that have enforced total lockdowns face reactionary behaviour that results in bigger problems than Sweden has ever had to face. The UK has been through 3 total mind sucking / blowing lockdowns and still the death rate is higher.

    Opinions such as the one put forth in this article are unhelpful, implicitly adding logs to a fire that would encourage our government to consider total lockdown. We should not go in this direction. If the author thinks we should she should state her reasons in straightforward terms.

    We do however, need articles that cover the devastating effect that the pandemic has had psychologically on the population, and in particular on the younger citizens of our country who are growing up like animals in a caged zoo. We who are older have the benefit of experience and memories of what they real world was like. They don’t and their lives are on hold. Are they, not the older generation, will be the ones faced with the enormous debt burden all countries are incurring in the name of closing down the economy because of the pandemic.

    Total lockdowns were from the get go the wrong strategic decision for dealing with the pandemic. The approach all along should have been protect the most vulnerable, but continue to keep the economy and society going / interacting.

    And what will be next? Governments suggesting we should keep the economy permanently closed because of each new strain that is discovered. Where does that go? It leads to death for everyone.

    So as the author says, it is time to put the pandemic behind us and applaud Sweden, her country and people, for the unique approach it has taken to the pandemic, one that I believe in hindsight will prove to have been the right course of action.

    1. You are a faker, you know that there is a spectrum of responses that can be taken. Until recently Swedes were only asked to wear a mask two hours a day on public transit, more could have been asked or demanded before reaching a total lockdown.

  2. “They were going to die anyway” – an actual quote I heard from a Swede about the old people that died due to Sweden’s terrible COVID-19 response.

    “I think Sweden has done a great job handling the crisis” – quote from a Swede. Me: “What about the 5,000 old people that died.” Them: “Yeah, I guess we could have done that better, but still.”

    Coronavirus deaths:
    Sweden: 13262
    Finland: 808
    Norway: 649

    A friend of mine drives a bus taking old people to doctors appointments. One year into the pandemic, and the bus agency is CONSIDERING recommending that their drivers wear masks.

    Sweden’s response has been a joke. Sweden has always wanted to be the moral big brother in the world who knows best. This time they were wrong. They ignored science, acted like they were saving their economy, but really the economy is no better or worse that neighboring countries. Sweden went nuts when the MS Estonia sank and 500 Swedes died. But I guess 5,000 old people don’t matter to a country that sends off their elderly to homes anyway.

  3. No one wants anyone to die needlessly. Everyone who is sane wants to preserve life. I am a liberal minded person who wants to live in a tolerant society that cares for all people in that society. I believe Sweden is currently the best example of such a society.

    When we are faced with a threat to society that affects everyone, it is only natural that we take everyone’s lot in that society into consideration. The most vulnerable, but also the large majority that propel that society forward.

    It is time we suspend our need to bicker about hurt feelings, and bad things people might say in public to us, even if we are doing the right thing. And yes, we should continue to do the right thing, social distance etc, and lead by example. But let us not bitch and complain and say it is time to leave this country. Such sentiments are weak, and frankly not worthy of this website.

    To conduct a survey that leads with a piece about hurt emotions and asking for “objective” feedback is preposterous. And irrelevant. Constructing so called objective data. Rubbish.

    We need strong voices that carve a new way forward, not those who would just point a finger and say how bad everything is. This country has something special, people who continue on with their lives in the face of a very uncertain threat.

    This happened once before. In WW 2, in the UK the saying was “Keep Calm and Carry On”. We need more of this today.

    @RT above seems to think we’ve done a terrible job here. He or she must be an expat else why read this newspaper. So then RT: where would you go where it would be better? Finland, Norway? They are experiencing new waves that prove lockdowns don’t work. We will only know once there is herd immunity. Yes, I said it, “herd immunity”, so come at me.

    It is sad that the author of this piece has had names called against her and people of her views. That is certainly not the kind of behaviour I would condone or approve of. I think all people should be entitled to take precautions freely and without insult. But it is by no means enough worth suggesting that we change the policy this country has taken.

    I don’t think self consciousness, hurt feelings and personal sorrow, even though we may all feel this, is at all what is required in the days that follow. We need to get our society back.

    People are naturally gregarious. To ask them not be is an insult to humanity. To condemn them for wanting to be together is medieval. No matter what the cause. Humanity must go on, yes we must protect the vulnerable, to do otherwise would be barbaric. But society in general must go on, and those who want to interact safely must be entitled to go on with their lives, and seize the day.

    We face tough times. That requires tough people, willing to get along with one another. So let’s just drop the moaning about hurt feelings at parties where one wears a mask and is mocked. You are better than this.

    1. There’s kind of a lot to unpack in what you said. I recently moved with my family to Sweden. All of the friends I have here are through my wife. She had one friend whom test positive and didn’t isolate or wear a mask, her rationalization was that she did t have any contact with older at risk people. I believe her response was a product of official messaging, an attitude of indifference towards other, and I think it was wrong. This isn’t an issue of naturally gregarious people having the right to “safely” socialize and not calling each other names. This is a matter of what we are all will to do for the people we love and don’t love to keep them safe from a disease that is not well understood and does not only effect the old. Also why do waves in other places disprove their methods but Swedish waves don’t disprove Swedish methods.

  4. Great article (and I’m glad to finally see some comment activity)!

    The point about reevaluating friendships is really important, especially considering how difficult it is to meet new people at this time. One empathetic way to look at the situation is that we all deal with trauma (and death) differently. I’m accommodating of all my friend’s approaches. While I’ve used the “When in Sweden…” approach, I’m also critical of the Public Health Authority’s response, even more so now that they’ve backtracked.

    I really think Anders Tegnell should step down. Maybe then people will start following the new “RECOMMENDATIONS”. He made a mistake with the first 6 months of the pandemic response. Personally, I would have followed his predecessor’s emailed advice or followed Korea and Japan’s approaches.
    Good luck with the 4th and 5th wave, team Sweden.

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For members


Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.