“Everyone’s talking about the surgical masks,” I tell my mom over the phone. It’s February, a few days before the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 will appear in Greece, but there’s already a debate going on: who should wear masks? In Sweden, where my mom lives, the first case (a woman returning from a trip to Wuhan) was detected as early as January 31, but it was an isolated case and no one is wearing masks there.
“One of the cleaning ladies at the school had one,” Mom answers. “Everyone was whispering that we should say something. It looked so strange.” On both ends of the line, and opposite sides of Europe, we shrug. We move on to talk about what baby books I want from Sweden’s upcoming book sale. She has tickets to come visit me over Swedish Easter.
It’s impossible not to compare my two countries’ reactions to the coronavirus. We’re talking about countries with similar population numbers, who got community transmission around the same time and passed the five deaths mark (when many statistical services start measuring countries against each other) only a day apart. We’re also talking about two countries with essential community differences, where one has among the most single-person households in the world and is much less densely populated than the other, where several generations are known to share a home. In one country, I greet my friends with a hug, in the other with kisses. In one country I order for myself, in the other I share mezedes and literally break bread with my bare hands.
Asking anyone before the coronavirus outbreak which of those two countries would be likely to suffer more in a pandemic, based solely on those differences, the answer would be Greece. Add to the equation that Sweden has a long reputation of providing excellent healthcare, whereas Greece is a country still wounded from an economic crisis, and the answer would seem almost too easy. As it turns out though, maybe it isn’t.
Today, Greece has seen 73 deaths from the virus, and has an exponential growth rate that’s equal to the world average (the number of deaths doubling every seven days). In Sweden, the deaths are up to 477, and the exponential growth rate is four days – the same frightening curve as the US and the UK. “Thousands will die. We might as well prepare ourselves for that,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told newspaper Dagens Nyheter on April 3.
In the Stockholm International Fairs facility in Alvsjo, the state is improvising a temporary hospital for coronavirus patients. One of the engineers on the project, who doesn’t want to be named, writes on Facebook: “Today I built a grieving room for families of diseased corona patients on a parking lot. Suddenly the proportions of this pandemic hits you right in the face… Looking at the refrigerated containers intended for bodies is surreal.”
I call my mom again on February 27. “I just left the office,” I tell her. “They say we might have a coronavirus case.” “Hurry to the supermarket for pasta,” she jokes.
While the next couple of weeks would be tumultuous in Greece, starting with canceled carnival celebrations, then the shuttering of schools, restaurants, shops and churches and finally lockdown on March 22, the Swedish government, guided in their decisions by the state’s Public Health Agency, encouraged symptom-free citizens to go to work and school as usual. Taking a different path from most other countries, the only strong measures in Sweden have been the banning of gatherings larger than 500 people on March 11 and then 50 people on March 29, the shuttering of colleges and universities on March 18, and the visiting ban at retirement homes on April 1. Other than that, the government has chosen not to place bans, and instead to offer recommendations. Primary schools, stores and restaurants all remain open.
While people here learned to work from home, carry antiseptic gel in their bags, and take their yoga classes over the internet, the Swedes, following the daily press conferences by the Public Health Agency’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell religiously, changed little in their routines. Talking to friends and family they described new habits of ordering groceries online, but they would also invite people over and go out to eat, to support their local restaurants. “We will take more serious measures when it’s needed,” Tegnell repeated in his daily updates.
Linnea Bjorkbacka, head of geriatric care at the Vasteras Central Hospital tells me: “I’m pregnant, so I’m spared contact with coronavirus patients, and, anyway, in my job you can’t get scared. It’s strange, in a way, to think that we would be the only country that doesn’t need to take firmer measures, it might be naive, but what can you do other than trust the experts and go about your day? My daughter has had the sniffles for weeks, and my husband and I take turns being home with her, but then we also have to go to work. I don’t let my parents babysit, but aside from that, life goes on.”
Criticized by the media in many countries, both Tegnell and his boss, general director of the health agency Johan Carlson, have, along with Lofven, refused those calling the Swedish tactics Social Darwinism and an inhuman race towards herd immunity. On the contrary, the most repeated argument by Swedish officials is that more serious measures, such as lockdowns, can’t be sustained over a longer time. Without pointing fingers at other state leaders (that would be almost every other government dealing with the virus), they indicate that bans imposed by other countries are so extreme, they will have to be revoked before the fight against the virus is over, thereby sparking a new wave of contagion.
Sometimes, almost like an afterthought, the politicians also mention another factor: The Swedish Constitution doesn’t allow for a state of emergency except in times of war, making it all but impossible for the government to take the fast actions seen in other countries. Even in a crisis, the government depends on state agency and parliament procedure to make decisions.
A small victory. After repeatedly sending messages to my mom asking her to stay home, I get the answer: “Working from home today and whenever possible. Only shopping in the evening. Antiseptic in my bag. Doing as told.”
Doing as told
Aside from living habits and physical closeness, there are other differences between Greeks and Swedes too. Swedes have been kindly spared from natural catastrophes, wars and occupations – the kind of scarring events which have taught the Greeks to be on constant alert to any threat. Swedes also have a long tradition of trusting official bodies. The word “lagom,” meaning “just enough” but also stemming from the Swedish word for “law,” has come to define us Swedes, who pride ourselves on being law-abiding and grounded, logical and non-eccentric.
When explaining why they’re depending on people to follow their recommendations (washing hands, working from home if possible, not visiting elders), rather than imposing bans, both Lofven and Tegnell have referred to this perennially “Swedish quality” of doing as one is told. They trust citizens to follow recommendations and practice social distancing of their own accord, and believe that putting faith in people is a way of safeguarding mutual confidence.
But a report from Google, showing changes in movement trends since the coronavirus outbreak, indicate that Swedes have changed their habits remarkably less than other countries, so the recommendations clearly don’t have the same effect as bans. While, for example, Greeks are spending 80 percent less time out of the house for retail and recreation, Swedes have only cut down on those outings 24 percent, and while people in other countries are spending less time in places like parks, people in Sweden are actually gathering there a lot more. Photos from central Stockholm this weekend showed people dining in crowded outdoor seating areas of restaurants, and squeezing together for selfies under the blooming cherry trees in Kungstradgarden. It appears that the pull of spring’s slow arrival is stronger than the government’s push to stay inside.
Victoria Olander works as a nurse at a retirement home on Lidingo, an upscale island-suburb of Stockholm. On her shift, she covers an adult diaper in Virkon disinfectant on the floor, and cleans the soles of her shoes on it every time she exits a patient’s room. This is not an official recommendation, but Victoria has worked in healthcare for 33 years, so she knows the secrets to being extra careful. While the government was fast to warn people not to visit their elders, and finally introduced a ban on April 1, it hasn’t worked. Many retirement homes are now struggling to control the virus. Victoria believes that personnel bring it in, especially those hired by the hour, moving between several homes. “There’s not enough knowledge or directives as to how we should avoid the spread,” she explains.
I ask if she’s scared of getting sick. “No, well, I’m only afraid of two things: snakes and suffocation,” she answers, then laughs: “So yes, because lately the only way you’ll get help at the hospitals is if you’re already about to suffocate from the virus. I’m afraid to get a bad case of it.”
Last week, a leaked message to the staff of Karolinska University Hospital made the rounds in Swedish media. It ended: “We will need to terminate treatment for a large number of intensive care patients that we would normally treat. Our most important task now is to save as many lives as we can.” Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, professor of microbial pathogenesis at the Karolinska Institute, told Reuters, “We don’t have a choice, we have to close Stockholm right now.”
On Saturday, the government presented a proposal for new legislation, which would temporarily give them power to circumvent state agencies and independently take faster measures against the spread of the virus, such as closing schools and restaurants. On Sunday, the need for parliament’s right to veto each decision was brought up and added to the proposal, yet many are still critical about the prospect of the legislation.
It’s Swedish Easter. A large package full of baby books arrives from my mom. We want my child to be bilingual. I always thought she might need the safety of Sweden one day.
On the phone from Stockholm, journalist and author Alexandra Pascalidou tells Kathimerini: “On the one hand, life looks pretty much the same. Supermarkets are full of people. The streets look slightly emptier, like on a national holiday. On the other hand, I have a friend that’s been put under and has been asleep for three days now. His wife can’t visit. Instead, she sits by the phone every evening at 8 o’clock, waiting to receive a call from the hospital. Meanwhile, hospitals in northern Sweden have began calling up old people and asking them to give up their right to a ventilator, in case they wind up in the hospital. They’re asking them to die.”
Paulina Bjork Kapsali is a writer based in Greece.