Letter from Sweden
As the rest of Europe went into lockdown, Sweden stood alone in its response to the pandemic. Six months on, Bella commissioning editor Dougald Hine reports from a country that seems remarkably comfortable with its outlier status.
Image: These posters appeared around Gothenburg in late March. The one on the left says ‘Soap + Water, we’ll deal with the climate crisis afterwards.’ The one on the right declares ‘All power to Tegnell – our state epidimimomilogist’. Like many things in Sweden, this is a reference to one of Astrid Lindgren’s children’s books: in this case, The Brothers Lionheart, a fantasy novel in which two brothers travel to the land of Nangijala, where they join the resistance against the tyrant Tengil. This sounds similar to the surname of Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist who has fronted Sweden’s response to the virus – but the layers of irony involved in turning this (mis)quote into a slogan in support of Tegnell are almost impenetrable. For one thing, the brother at the centre of Lindgren’s story ends up dying of tuberculosis.
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‘It is a myth that life goes on as normal in Sweden,’ Ann Linde insists.
It’s mid-April and the foreign minister is holding a webcast briefing for the international media, arranged in response to the unprecedented level of coverage the country is receiving over its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘Sweden is suffering very gravely,’ Donald Trump declared the week before, and for once his take on events seems in alignment with much of the mainstream reporting.
Appearing alongside Linde is the minister for health and social affairs, Lena Hallengren, who is keen to dispel the impression that Sweden has taken a radically different approach. There are only two major differences in the way we are responding, she says: first, that our schools and kindergartens remain open, and second, that people have not been forced to stay at home. In many other ways, Swedes are changing their behaviour, just as is happening in other countries. The images of crowded café terraces in Stockholm that appeared in newspapers around the world give a misleading impression.
Perhaps it is true that what set Sweden apart from the rest of Europe could be brought down to those two differences, but it branched outwards from there in a hundred ways that have shaped our lives in the course of this strange year. In the first days of April, I was moving house, while many of those I spoke to in other countries were scarcely leaving their homes. The morning after we got in to the new flat, I sent my family in England a photo of my son at a nearby playground. ‘The playgrounds are locked up here,’ my sister wrote back. ‘The virus can survive for 72 hours on metal and plastic surfaces.’
Now we’re six months in, I want to risk some thoughts on the circumstances and mentalities that shaped the response to the pandemic in the two countries that I have had grounds to call home. This is about why Sweden did things differently and how that has worked out so far, but it’s also about the stories we wrap around ourselves when the cold wind of mortality is blowing. And it’s about how we avoid taking the wrong lessons from a crisis like the one we’re living through.
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When you make your home in a country that isn’t where you grew up, there’s always a background sense of living between worlds; but in the eight years since I moved here, nothing had brought this into tension like the early weeks of the pandemic.
In my Facebook feed, one set of friends was sharing charts of exponential curves and agitating for lockdown in the UK, while another set seemed primed to shoot down anyone questioning the line taken by the Swedish authorities. ‘Do you think you know better, because you read some article on the internet?’ This kind of comment became a default response, even when the article in question was written by the editor of the Lancet. Following the public debate in both countries was bewildering: the arguments made by Guardian columnists in London were heard here mainly from the far-right Sweden Democrats, while the policy of the red-green government in Stockholm was suddenly celebrated in the Telegraph and the Spectator. But this wasn’t just about political disorientation. If the articles my British and American friends were sharing had it right, then the country where I lived was headed for disaster; and it was hard to share the gut-level confidence that most of those around me seemed to have in the Swedish system.
For a few days, I carried this as a constant tension, in my thoughts and in my chest. And then a question took shape: what good could come of staging this drama inside myself? It wasn’t going to change the course of events, it just made me more difficult to live with. I had to give it up. To live with one foot in each country, or one half of my head, was a denial of the reality that this is my home now. I was vulnerable, at a bodily level, to the decisions of the Swedish government, and this realisation cut through the half-in, half-out detachment with which I had lived here until this point, bringing me to a new acceptance of what it means to have made a life in this country.
Of course, I was lucky in how deeply integrated I had already become: I’m at home reading Swedish books and newspapers, I’ve spent enough time working in Swedish institutions to acclimatise to some of the cultural differences; and few things will graft you to a country so firmly as raising a child who thinks of it as where he is from.
For others, the choices have been harder. An American friend here told us she had kept her child home from kindergarten for four months. There was a news report the other week of a family in Jonköping whose three children have been taken away by social services because they kept them home from school and didn’t let them leave the apartment. The family’s lawyer explained that they didn’t speak Swedish and had been following the coverage of the pandemic from their home country, but the court upheld the decision to take the children into care.
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For many of us who did not grow up here, what has been striking and alienating is the implacable confidence of Swedish officials, politicians and public voices. A common refrain in the early weeks was that Sweden, with its powerful state agencies, was following an expert-led and evidence-based approach, whereas other countries were rushing into lockdown for political reasons. In this account, the rest of the world was being swept up in pandemic populism, while Sweden soldiered on alone, a last stronghold of rationality. There seemed little acknowledgement of how much remained unknown, that the evidence was limited and required interpretation, or that experts were not united in their conclusions.
When over 2,000 researchers at Swedish universities signed an open letter questioning the government’s approach, a professor who had refused to sign queried the presence of foreign postdocs among the signatories. ‘Whose interests do they think they are serving?’ someone else asked. ‘Not the Swedish people’s.’ It was jarring to hear this tone struck by liberal academics, rather than the usual pedlars of xenophobia: another instance of the through-the-looking-glass landscape of Swedish politics this spring.
On 22nd March, the prime minister Stefan Löfven addressed the Swedish people directly in a rare speech to the nation, broadcast on Sunday night television. As we sat down to watch, I remember there was still an expectation that Sweden was about to follow the path into lockdown taken by other European countries. Perhaps this was what he wanted to talk to us about? Instead, he spoke of the need for everyone to take responsibility, whether by doing the shopping for a neighbour, supporting a local restaurant by buying a takeaway lunch, or avoiding going round to visit your grandmother, but calling her for a chat each day instead.
What stuck with me was his opening description of the situation: ‘The infection is spreading. Lives, health and jobs are under threat.’ By this point, even the Dutch and British governments had found it necessary to clarify that saving lives was a higher priority than preserving the economy, so there was something distinctively Swedish about this rhetorical formula in which ‘lives’ and ‘jobs’ were placed on an equal footing.
In the weeks that followed, international commentators often seemed perplexed by what they took to be Sweden’s prioritisation of its economy. It didn’t fit neatly into the geopolitical narrative of Covid and the state of the world’s democracies. Trump, Bolsonaro and – until he U-turned – Johnson could easily be accounted for as rogue statesmen, happy to sacrifice the old and the weak on the altar of free market economics, but what was a Scandinavian social democrat doing alongside them? Was this a sign of how far Sweden had travelled down the road to neoliberalism? Or evidence for the distinctive understanding of ‘welfare’ that flavours Swedish politics, where the fate of the economy is deeply tied to the state’s ability to provide?
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These are good questions, but I found my mind running in another direction. What I wanted to know was why Sweden seemed so at ease with being the odd one out? At an official level and more widely, Swedes seemed remarkably comfortable with their country finding itself at odds with the rest of the world as to the nature of the situation and the appropriate response.
My suspicion was that this had to do with the role of cultural memory. Just as the politics of Brexit is hard to fathom without accounting for the unfinished histories of Empire and the Second World War, just as Donald Trump is the product of intergenerational traumas already old when his mother left the Isle of Lewis and sailed for New York, so there are deep currents acting within Sweden’s political mindset that pre-date the lived experience of its current generation of politicians.
Somewhere down there is the cultural memory of wartime neutrality, which makes it seem natural to assume that chaos elsewhere in Europe will leave Sweden largely unscathed. Attached to this, I’d guess, is an urge to preserve the economy, so as to replicate the competitive advantage which this country had in the post-war era, when the productive capacity of much of the continent was in ruins.
Closer to the surface, more consciously in play, there’s the memory of the sudden, deep recession of the 1990s: the one major experience of crisis within the living memory of today’s decision-makers. Its legacy may go some way to explain that rhetorical balancing of lives and jobs.
And woven through all of this is the story Sweden likes to tell about its greatness. This goes back to the ‘Great Power Time’ of the 17th century, long-since departed, but still to be experienced in the extraordinary baroque interiors of the palaces and stately homes that grace the landscape of the counties around Stockholm. Furnished in a moment of prosperity, these were preserved for posterity by the decline that followed, when Sweden’s attempts at empire foundered and there was hardly the money to keep up with later fashions. Since the failure of its early modern ambitions left Sweden seemingly free of the moral stains that attached to Europe’s more successful imperial powers, it also helped position the country for its second era of self-proclaimed greatness: the ‘moral great power’ of the high decades of social democracy, ‘the world’s most modern country’, convinced of its own righteousness and its position in the vanguard of history.
In one of the best books written about the political earthquakes of 2016, Anthony Barnett warns of The Lure of Greatness. It might be instructive to compare the toxic invocation of ‘greatness’ in the politics of England’s Brexit and America’s Trump with the strangely parallel role such language plays in Sweden’s story of itself. Swedish exceptionalism is more understated than the American variety, but like the red paint that coats the wooden houses that dot the countryside here, it is made of iron.
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Under ordinary circumstances, I would have written up these thoughts for publication back in March. But during those first weeks, I found I’d lost my appetite for writing. This wasn’t self-censorship; although given the hostility shown to those Swedes who questioned the country’s policy, I understand why other incomers have told me they feel unable to go on the record.
In my case, the reluctance was more general. As the pandemic spread from the edge of our collective field of vision, to eclipse whatever plans or expectations we had been nurturing for 2020, it was met with a rush of content creation. Across the world, or at least across the internet, everyone seemed to have a narrative to throw around this disease, or a way to make it fit with whatever story they had been telling the week before.
The distrust I felt at this came from the guts, rather than the head. The best I could do by way of explanation was this: a virus comes along, and it’s like God walking in the garden in the evening; we snatch up whatever story we were carrying already to wrap ourselves against the sudden sense of nakedness. Better to sit for a while, to let the chill knowledge change us, rather than stitching fig leaves.
When stories are your trade, it’s an odd experience to lose your taste for them. As you can tell, it didn’t last! But for a while, this sense of disgust at the narrative voice was strong enough to stall the writing I’d been doing, including the Notes from Underground series I was working on for Bella.
All I wanted to do was have quiet conversations, where each conversation started with the question, ‘How are you doing?’, and we’d make room for whatever that brought to the table. And if these conversations took place over screens and cameras, that wasn’t so different from how my working days had looked before the virus came along.
Not everyone had the privilege of such quiet conversations, or the quietness that came in between. Even then, it took a choice to still myself, to walk away from the phone that was forever pinging with updates, urgent and important. I did my best to remember to make that choice. To listen in the stillness.
And after ten days in which the aversion to writing had been total, in which all my lust for telling stories had left me, I heard something. It’s too soon to tell the story of this event, a voice said. And it will still be too soon, when it starts to be too late.
So I found myself beginning again – not in the considered voice with which I had been writing a few weeks earlier, but with something more provisional, a public conversation with someone I was just getting to know when all of this began. An opening up of the quiet conversations I was finding helpful.
Through the strange spring that followed, I kept a weekly appointment with the futurist Ed Gillespie, as the two of us puzzled through the stories that were taking shape around the pandemic, and its place within the larger tangle of social, political and ecological crisis. These conversations became a podcast and we called it The Great Humbling, because what had set us talking in the first place was Ed’s enthusiasm for a suggestion I’d been making for years: that if we need a name for the times in which we find ourselves, it might be best to lay aside the academic wrangling over terms like the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene or the Chthulucene, and just call it ‘the Humbling’. The moment in which we get brought down to earth.
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By early summer, Sweden was taking a beating. The New York Times declared it ‘the world’s cautionary tale’, pointing to a death toll many times higher than those of its Nordic neighbours and an economy doing little better. There were countries in Europe which had gone into lockdown and still suffered worse: Italy, Spain, Belgium and the UK. But with infection rates elsewhere falling faster, the last days of May saw Sweden post the highest daily number of Covid deaths of any country in the world.
Against this background, the Guardian ran a piece from the Swedish journalist and TV producer Erik Augustin Palm under the headline, ‘Swedish exceptionalism has been ended by coronavirus’. After a decade in San Francisco and LA, Palm had returned home in March to be near his 71-year-old mother for the duration. Experiencing his own version of the dislocation that went with being attached to two parts of the world with startlingly different reactions to the pandemic, he had written an earlier article for Slate, voicing his horror at Sweden’s complacency, and his peers in the Swedish media had turned on him: ‘I’ve never received so much ad hominem vitriol from colleagues.’
Much of what Palm has to say about ‘Swedish exceptionalism’, ‘a toxic pride’ and ‘a national self-image of moral superiority’ rings true; but the argument of his Guardian piece foundered as he neared a conclusion. With more than 5,200 dead, he wrote, ‘Covid-19 has toppled Swedish exceptionalism’. Even at the moment when the international comparisons looked worst, this claim was wishful thinking. To grasp what I mean, it is necessary to step back and ask why countries around the world brought in such extraordinary measures in the early months of 2020.
The obvious answer, the one that infuses much of the discussion around the pandemic, would be: to save lives. But this doesn’t capture the core motive behind the decisions made by governments. The lockdowns, the travel bans, the ‘shelter-in-place’ warnings and states of emergency introduced around the world – including the restrictions brought in by the Swedish government – were set against a more binary measure than how many of their people would end up dying of Covid-19. What was at stake was the possibility of a systemic collapse of the infrastructure of healthcare. This is what we glimpsed during the worst days in northern Italy, when hospitals came close to breakdown due to the sheer number of mainly elderly patients with acute symptoms.
A systemic failure would lead to far more deaths, not just from Covid-19 but from all the other ways of dying that are prevented or postponed by the activities of hospitals and medical systems in the course of an ordinary week. It would also be an event of the kind that shakes the legitimacy of a regime. It’s not just that no government in a modern state could survive a full-on collapse of its medical system; such an event would call a whole political and economic order into question. This prospect is what brought even Boris Johnson to abandon the ‘herd immunity’ strategy in the second half of March. It’s what caused governments to deliberately bring about the sharpest economic downturn on record. As Jay Springett summed it up for me: ‘They killed the economy to save capitalism.’
Back when all this started, the talk of ‘flattening the curve’ was about avoiding such a scenario. It’s what the viral Medium posts explaining the exponential spread of a virus were about, the ones that gave us the message that Sweden was headed for disaster. So here’s the thing: if the Swedish health system had been overwhelmed, if the stories from hospitals here had been like Bergamo or worse, then Covid-19 might very well have shaken the foundations of Swedish exceptionalism. That would have been a crisis great enough to call a country’s story of itself into question, but it didn’t happen. The field hospital built in Stockholm in the first days of April was dismantled in June, without ever being used. Palm points to the high numbers of deaths, but these don’t amount to the kind of event that can topple a country’s beliefs; they just lead to an endless debate over whether Denmark or Belgium is the more appropriate point of comparison.
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One morning in late August, I catch the train into Stockholm. The journey takes just under an hour and I’m making it for the first time in half a year. The city is quieter than usual, but not apocalyptically so. Masks are rare: not one person in a hundred is wearing one. People go about their business, many of them as usual, some with a definite wariness. I’m conscious of the friction between these different levels of caution, the edge it gives to the way we share urban space. But central Stockholm was always calm and spacious for a capital city, so the effect is hardly overpowering.
House prices are going through the roof, except when it comes to apartments in Stockholm and Gothenburg. There’s talk of a new ‘green wave’, echoing the back-to-the-land trend of the 1970s. I hear stories of employers who are deciding to get rid of their offices and let their staff go on working from home. A friend says everyone she knows who doesn’t work in the health system and who hasn’t been directly affected by the virus has had the most relaxed six months they can remember. Though the university teaching staff I meet don’t sound relaxed, as they head into a new academic year with a mess of face-to-face teaching mixed with Zoom for students who can’t attend.
The news is of rising infection rates in many parts of Europe and the tightening of restrictions, but in Sweden the numbers are still falling. As I write, the latest round of international headlines is focused on the seven-day average of Covid-19 deaths which has fallen to zero. It’s still too soon to draw conclusions, but this doesn’t stop them being drawn.
Depending on who you read, Sweden’s latest deviation from the trends elsewhere means that we’ve reached some form of herd immunity that isn’t fully captured by antibody testing, or that we’re in the calm before the hard winter storm that lies ahead. The chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (whose face you see people wearing on T-shirts) repeats a message he’s been giving since the start: the restrictions here are intended to be sustainable for as long as it takes, unlike moving in and out of lockdown, and time will tell whether this strategy was right.
There remain the numbers that are already in: 5,864 deaths at the latest count, almost six times as many per million as in Denmark, more than ten times as many as Norway. To sweep away that difference, any second wave would have to hit our neighbours hard indeed. Some argue the comparison is misleading, that the cultural similarities disguise differences of circumstance which can’t be reduced to lockdown or no lockdown. The timing of the winter half-term holiday for schools in the Stockholm region and the greater tendency for Swedes to fly to the Alps for their skiing meant we imported far more cases in that critical week at the start of March. The lower rate of deaths in recent flu seasons compared to the other Nordic states meant there were just more frail elderly people around in Sweden for this virus to take: according to one analysis, this factor alone could account for as much as half of the total mortality here.
Another kind of analysis will tell you that the strategy Sweden chose has worked just fine for the white middle classes with their suburban villas and summer houses, but left the poorest and the most marginalised groups exposed. This is a country which loves to dress its individualism in a rhetoric of solidarity.
Then, on a point of order, someone will remind you that the Swedish constitution makes no provision for a state of emergency outside of wartime. In which case, there was no scenario in which the government could have imposed the kind of lockdown brought in elsewhere back in March.
I’m not a constitutional lawyer, nor an epidemiologist, though like many of us, I’ve caught myself playing the armchair expert at times this year. It’s one of the defence mechanisms of people with a certain kind of education, to marshal the facts and the theories, as if talking about them confidently enough might make our bodies less vulnerable to infection. We all have our superstitions, I suppose.
One thing I notice, as the months go by, is a slowly widening gap between the people around me here and many of those I speak with in other countries. It’s a gap between our experience of the pandemic and a gap between the state we’re in, after six months of this. When I speak with people elsewhere, I often have a sense of a background buzz of fear or anxiety or exhaustion that belongs to the general environment they are in. It was summed up by a quote that Ed brought when we sat down over Skype the other day to record the first episode of a new season of The Great Humbling. The quote comes from the psychologist Susie Orbach:
The pandemic has been a prolonged assault from outside on our community. The state of uncertainty it has created is new and utterly unfamiliar. Unless you are a refugee who has risked their life to get here, or a survivor of childhood abuse that could not be escaped, there is simply nothing to compare it to.
There are groups in Swedish society for whom this description might fit the experience of the past half year: I think of active older people whose lives have been sharply constrained by following the advice to those over seventy, or of people with existing conditions which make them vulnerable, unable to shield because of the insistence that all children under sixteen attend school unless sick themselves.
Yet looking at Swedish society as a whole, I doubt that Orbach’s words would meet with the kind of recognition they find in the UK and elsewhere. Perhaps it’s that we form a picture of our situation by reading back from what is asked of us: so the more extreme the interruption of life as we knew it, the worse the situation that required this interruption must be. The lightness of the restrictions here has left Sweden less traumatised, it seems to me, and this may have implications that are not fully captured in comparisons of either the death count or the size of the economic contraction. I say this as an observation, not a judgement.
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There’s a line I quoted at the end of our first series, back in June, from the Inuit poet Taqralik Partridge. She asks us to weigh the thought that this pandemic is only the ‘warning shots’ of something bigger: a chain of disruptions coming at all our societies, one way or another, in the times ahead. I picture them sweeping in like storms across the Atlantic in hurricane season. Each storm will make landfall at a different spot. Neither its course nor its behaviour can ever be wholly predictable.
I carried this image around all summer, and then it struck me how it breaks the stories that get told about the pandemic. There are two big stories I hear going around: the one about getting back to normal, and the one where the pandemic is a turning point. Both draw on understandable longings, but they share an assumption that this pandemic is the big event, the great interruption. If that’s not the case, if what we’re living through is just one in a run of gathering crises, then neither of those stories really works.
You don’t have to look far for clues as to what is coming: the orange skies over California, the people making desperate journeys in tiny boats across European waters, the tinderbox of American democracy. The list goes on, and still the reality of the next storm will catch us off-guard. Remember how suddenly and sharply the world pivoted in the weeks when the pandemic made landfall. How quickly measures which seemed unimaginable became everyday.
If these are the warning shots, then there’s no sense in a return to business as usual. It’s business as usual that’s bringing on this chain of crises and the next crisis will be along soon. But nor can we make this the moment when everything changed, the clearcut turning point, on the far side of which we all came to our senses. There is no far side, just the muddy meanwhile where we make life work together as best we can, learning to ride out the weather of history.
There’s one more lesson I draw from this way of thinking, and it’s this: the societies which found themselves best placed to weather this particular storm would be foolish to take that as any kind of vindication. Let’s say we can look back in another half a year and conclude, with a confidence that would be misplaced now, that Sweden got something right in its response to the pandemic. This wouldn’t mean that everyone else should have done what we did here: more likely, it would indicate that ‘social distancing’ describes the way life worked in Sweden all along! When the two metre rule was scrapped here, a Facebook meme asked: ‘Are you going to carry on keeping two metres distance, or go back to five metres like normal?’ This is a big empty country with more one-person households than anywhere else in Europe, and I’d guess that Swedes visit their elderly relatives less often than pretty much anyone else. I still remember in my first year here, a retired Social Democrat politician in her seventies telling me proudly that Sweden’s old people don’t want their families involved in taking care of them in any way; instead, they are taken care of by some of the lowest-paid and most precarious workers in this society, many of them migrants from the Global South.
If Sweden did evade a full-on disaster while avoiding the traumatic effects of lockdown – and obviously that’s open to debate – then it’s down to the way we do things here, for better and for worse. It doesn’t mean the Swedish way would have worked elsewhere, and it doesn’t mean that Sweden will be well-placed to weather the next storm. In some ways, that’s what troubles me most: that we will draw unwarranted conclusions from this whole pandemic, breeding a complacency that only sets us up for a greater fall somewhere not much further down the road. Because if this is a time of humbling, I don’t see that any of our societies are likely to be spared, and there’s certainly a great deal that is dysfunctional or brittle in the way we do things here in Sweden. It would only take a storm blowing from a slightly different direction to show us just how far we have to fall.
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Dougald will be resuming his Notes from Underground series for Bella this autumn. Meanwhile, you can revisit his long read from last September on Sweden’s story of itself and its role in the political imagination of millions of people who have never been there – or listen to the latest episode of The Great Humbling, available through all the usual podcast platforms.