By Daniel Fyffe / Original to Scheerpost
BORGHOLM, Sweden — Moving back about seven years ago to the country where I grew up, after living more than three decades in Los Angeles, has had its challenges, yet none greater than trying to explain being OK with living in Sweden during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Only a few weeks ago, the Financial Times coronavirus tracker pointed at Sweden as having the worst coronavirus-related per capita death toll in the world.
The novel Swedish approach of “herd-immunity,” as conjured by a mad scientist epidemiologist-cum-COVID-19 czar hardly reads like a fairy tale, judging by the horrifying numbers in its wake.
Though the initial concept of herd immunity seemed somewhat sound, the head of the effort to ride out the pandemic, Anders Tegnell, appears idealistically to have relied way too much on traditional Swedish solidarity and general obedience to rules and regulations.
Certainly, the Swedish government has issued plenty of mandates and guidelines such as travel restrictions and occupancy limits to various venues and so forth, and though most Swedes take care to maintain socialdistancing, it is rare to see someone walking around wearing a mask over here.
And the numbers don’t lie, or do they?
Tegnell has suggested how the gross deviation as compared to the rest of the world in COVID-19-related mortality depends on how cases are reported. There have been reports that in many nations, only those who die at hospitals are being counted, and that other international hospitals are not counting COVID-19 deaths in cases where there is no absolute certainty. Fortunately, the curve has begun to flatten even here in Sweden, with a reasonably functioning society still intact.
Articles in the New York Times, Time Magazine and other media are harshly critical of what they refer to as “the Swedish model.” What is not mentioned by those publications however is how the Swedish government is also humbly self-critical in assessing how the COVID-19 pandemic continuously is being dealt with over here. On July 1, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced a panel to probe into and evaluate the less stringent Swedish coronavirus response.
Sweden is also greatly criticized by its Nordic neighbors who, with a considerably lesser death toll by adhering to the complete isolation/ lockdown approach of other EU nations for arguable reasons, express a moral superiority towards their Scandinavian “big brother.”
There are two main areas of focus in understanding Swedish shortcomings. Primarily it is in the care of the “higher risk” elderly in the initial stages of the pandemic.
The conditions at homes for the elderly which left them vulnerable to coronavirus infection is something the Swedish health ministry in conjunction with local health authorities has gone to great lengths to correct.
Second, an area where a virtual mud-slinging fest could occur with Sweden’s neighbors lies in how Sweden has accepted a far greater sum of refugees than our Nordic counterparts. There has been a disproportionately greater rate of infection within these immigrant communities which in turn has been attributed to failures in communication as in not having provided information in their native languages along with not addressing cultural distinctions, such as intergenerational living arrangements as well as greeting each other by embracing and kissing which is not common to “traditional” Swedish households.
This has been understood and addressed.
Having also read in horror of the mental health effects the complete “lockdowns” have had in places like Italy and Spain replete with an astounding rise in domestic abuse and business closures, while sincerely mourning those who having passed from this disease, I still find comfort in thinking that Sweden appears in reasonable shape heading in to the impending financial crisis following this virus nightmare that we are all enduring.
An example of reducing public interaction is in a campaign aimed at urging users of public transportation not to travel more than need be. My sister and cousins who have lived here all along and established themselves rather well in mainstream workplaces have been directed to work from home and take meetings and coordinate their jobs via the multitude of electronic platforms that exist today. This is yet another very common approach in Sweden to not having people circulating unnecessarily in the streets. One cousin has had his workload reduced to 40% of his usual hours yet retains 90% of his salary, and where larger companies have had to temporarily shut down, the employees still get paid by a functioning unemployment system as well as other government COVID-19 response subsidies.
A dear friend recently had to bring her teenage son living in Barcelona back to Sweden as he was experiencing extreme agoraphobia along with other Kafkaesque anxieties and fears from having been confined to the apartment where he was living for months on end.
Judgment calls have landed Sweden in hot water, particularly with the rest of the European community, as now is evident when travel restrictions are being eased, yet Swedes in particular are not yet welcomed in too many, if not most, of our EU partnership nations.
As the rest of Europe resumes some semblance of “normalcy,” I don’t believe I’m being prescient in fearing tragic consequences due to other EU nations’ lack of preparedness for a second wave of this awful malady. Just as the “relaxed” Swedish approach to the coronavirus pandemic has had profoundly disheartening consequences, there is good reason to imagine how people who for long periods have lived in total seclusion from each other are also more vulnerable to infection when again interacting with each other in such ways as they did prior to and whilst this pandemic took hold.
We cannot yet fully understand the entire scope and ramifications of this disease but I do believe, as does seemingly the bulk of the Swedish population, that from future more all-encompassing assessments, the Swedish model may not have been as farfetched as it appears now in the midst of the storm and with the myopic focus on the directly related and clearly very tragic deaths.
What is beyond outrageous, though, is how US Republican government officials’ failure to create and propagate a cohesive response to the COVID-19 crisis point to Sweden as the format for their failures. How dare they!? The GOP would never establish or even come close to providing the social safety nets and free universal health care that has formed a basis for the Swedish pandemic response.
In Sweden, no one will lose their jobs for being at home sick, nor will anyone have to sell all their earthly belongings and possibly face loans they either cannot get or pay off on account of hospital bills.
Very early on, as COVID-19 was recognized in Europe, Swedish health authorities took great steps to increase the number of available (and, need I reiterate, free) hospital wards dedicated to virus care, a measure that in no way has been nor could have been matched by the current US government.
While there certainly are rotten eggs even in Sweden, such as those who do not shoulder a communal duty of shielding themselves or others from infection, for the most part, Swedes view COVID-19 very seriously and do observe the marked lines in the markets, spritz their hands with readily available hand sanitizers, refrain from visiting those in particular risk groups (sick and 70+ elderly) and wash hands in hot water after public outings.
When Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven speaks about the disease, he refers to scientific data and recognizes that those in power are not perfect but doing their level best.
If that alone doesn’t contrast with the “leader of the free world” who, like some Jim Jones resurrected, suggests people ingest chlorine and hold mass meetings exposing his possible voters to tremendous risks, well, I for one am grateful not riding out this horror in the grasp of someone reveling in absurdities.
Thus, where most Swedes increasingly and cohesively have formed around the virus vision offered by Anders Tegnell, from a Swedish perspective the United States as a whole still appears an anarchic shoot ‘em up Wild West revival.
Daniel Fyffe is an artist.
Copyright 2020 Daniel Fyffe