Sweden’s approach to the pandemic, trusting people to make sensible choices rather than imposing strict restrictions backed by law, has been in stark contrast to the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean life hasn’t changed, of course.
Large social gatherings have become rarer, and very few people I know travelled abroad this summer – we made the most of what we’ve got on our doorstep. Interactions are a little different. Swedes love hugging, and the new greetings still feel a little awkward – elbow bumps aren’t everybody’s favourite option!
The shopping experience has changed. Some stores have hand gel, and there are perspex screens for most cashiers. As with the UK, you’ll see two-metre markings on the floor – sometimes all the way out the door and around the corner if queues are often long.
We have been encouraged to work from home where possible, and many people, it won’t surprise you to learn, have embraced this option. Major offices in southern Sweden (such as Sony, Ikea and Tetra Pak) are still more or less deserted, and the impact on towns dependent on one company, such as Älmhult (home to the first first IKEA), has been dramatic.
Public gatherings of more than 50 people are still banned (although there’s talk of raising that limit to 500), as are visits to care homes, while – as with other countries – non-critical medical procedures were postponed and there’s now a big waiting list.
But, really, that’s about it.
Restaurants, for example, have barely changed at all. There are slightly fewer tables, with fewer seats (although some restaurants will still push several together for a big party if you ask very nicely), but you don’t need to book days in advance or leave your contact details at the door.
Nowhere in society are face masks expected or required, and perhaps one person out of 100 wears one – often foreigners. These are the people who get stared at, not the other way around!
I had my hair cut yesterday, and my hairdresser hasn’t been told to wear a mask, or one of those face shields. My local gym introduced a few restrictions at the start of the pandemic, such as smaller classes, but now it’s back to normal – packed, and with yoga mats just a couple of feet apart. Our beaches were heaving over the summer, and nobody was shamed on social media for simply trying to enjoy a bit of sunshine.
Children up to 15 years haven’t missed a single day of school, and while older kids had online schooling over the spring – and missed their important end-of-year “studentfester” graduation parties – they are all back now. Even the occasional Covid cases aren’t causing much disruption to education; one school in my home city of Malmö had an outbreak during their first week back, with five of its teachers ill – but the school didn’t actually close its doors.
What will really surprise British visitors to Sweden, however, is the general lack of fear. I’ve heard from my English relatives about the fraught atmosphere over there – they say, particularly in London, that there’s a real tension in the air that makes it hard to relax or to even have fun. One of my daughters lives in Germany and it is the same there, she says. But in Malmö, and the rest of the country, things just feel... normal.
Admittedly, some people, mainly non-Swedes and the elderly, are a little nervous – and are avoiding social contact – but they make up the overwhelming minority. The rest of us are either completely gung-ho, or have adopted a sort of ‘risk versus reward’ strategy: if we know something will be enjoyable – a holiday or a birthday party, perhaps – we will throw caution to the wind, but if the reward isn’t there – working in the office, for example, or an unnecessary meeting – then we will take the safer option. Most importantly we’re allowed to make our own risk-based choices, they are not dictated to us by politicians.
Certain onlookers have called Sweden’s strategy irresponsible, but nearly everyone I know here backs it. Support wavered for a short while, when cases were rising a few months ago, but now our infection rate is falling – while the rest of Europe’s is rising – we think we’ve been proven right. We chose the long-term strategy, not unsustainable suppression. We can’t have a second wave because we didn’t try to stop the first one, and now, as other countries like Britain are reimposing restrictions, we are enjoying normality. The consensus is that lockdown was a populist, knee-jerk reaction that’s unworkable and of dubious effect. And the recent rounds of opening up and then closing down have consolidated this view.
Lots of us have experienced talking to friends abroad, especially when most countries were in lockdown, and having them tell us how crazy we are, or ask us about how we’re surviving the Swedish “corona apocalypse” that their country’s media was reporting. It felt comical since our lives have been so normal in comparison to theirs.
Swedes actually revel in being fearless, and wear rationality as a badge of honour, which is why, perhaps, we’re behaving differently to the rest of the world. If you allow yourself to be ruled by fear, then what kind of life is that? We’re a fatalistic lot. “What happens will happen”, people say. “We’re not God.”
Our own media’s reporting is not hysterical, as Britons will be used to. Yes, the pandemic is still headline news, but sensationalism is absent and the journalist code is always to put forward a variety of opinions. We had daily briefings at the height of the crisis, but our state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell was clear and honest – and didn’t pile on the fear. He admitted that nobody really knows the best strategy, but that lockdown would be “like killing a fly with a hammer”. We were offered reassurance that only certain groups were at risk, and he explained that face masks are not proven to be effective in the community – so they were never introduced.
No masks, no quarantine...— Telegraph Travel (@TelegraphTravel) September 11, 2020
Are you tempted to visit Sweden?
Interestingly, while it is the right wing in Britain where you will usually find opponents of Covid restrictions, and of mandatory masks, conservatives seem to be the only people in Sweden arguing for more rules. Indeed, my other daughter, currently studying at university, says some of her young friends scoff at people who wear masks, quote research that shows they do more harm than good, and say people look ridiculous in them and can’t be taken seriously.
Now Britons can visit Sweden without facing a two-week quarantine on their return home, they can see for themselves how well our strategy has worked. Maybe they won’t want to leave. The other day I met my first corona “refugee”, a tech worker from Minnesota. He had no connections with Sweden but after surviving his strict US lockdown he decided our little country was the best place to spend the pandemic. He has been living and working in Malmo for the last three months, enjoying the freedom.