“Is it really that damn bad?” Sandra Bergkvist, a 28-year-old grocery clerk from nearby Akersberga, asked rhetorically as she enjoyed a beer with a group of friends. “Of course we’re worried about people in the risk groups, but if it wasn’t for media it wouldn’t have been this hysterical.”
Even Swedes in higher-risk groups did not seem that concerned. Margareta Körner, 80, and Margareta Eriksson, 67, fall into one of those groups — older adults — but the two retired women sat in the public square, sharing a thermos of coffee. Körner, who lives in a middle-class borough of central Stockholm, knows she is not supposed to be outside, but she said she maintains her distance from others. And Eriksson, who lives in the same borough, said fighting the coronavirus comes down to common sense.
“I think our government is doing the right thing,” she said. “Most people are responsible.”
Sweden has chosen its own path in battling the coronavirus pandemic, which as of Monday had infected 1.3 million people and killed over 73,000 worldwide. While many countries, including Sweden’s neighbors, have shut down schools, restaurants, shops and borders, Sweden has maintained a relatively lax approach to combating the spread of the virus. Many still go into work. Primary schools and day cares remain open, as do recreational centers and several gyms. The elderly are urged to stay at home and unnecessary domestic travel is discouraged, but this is not enforced other than through public shaming.
It was not until March 29 that the Swedish government significantly curtailed the size of permitted gatherings — from 500 to 50. The legislature this week is expected to debate whether further measures, including business and travel restrictions, should be implemented.
The country has not been immune. On Sunday, the number of dead surpassed 400 — a higher fatality rate per capita than in the United States or any other Scandinavian country. One-third of Stockholm’s homes for the elderly have seen cases of covid-19, medical facilities are stretched to their limits and hospital staffs are clamoring for enough protective gear. On Saturday, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told the Swedish press that the country should be prepared for thousands of deaths.
Yet, in central Stockholm this weekend, you had to search to find signs of a pandemic.
“For a week or two, the city was like a ghost town, then people got tired of staying at home,” said Linda Akesson, 30, from a middle-class suburb just north of Stockholm. Akesson, who works in a retirement home, was on a commuter train to meet friends for dinner. She said people make their own judgments based on government guidance. “We’re this land of half-measures,” she said. “They say, ‘Try not to use public transport, but if you do, that’s totally fine, too.’ ”
Tommy Möller, a political science professor at Stockholm University, says “many influential experts have taken a laid-back position to the problem and played it down. This has given legitimacy to people not to take advice to stay at home too seriously.”
Several recent opinion polls have shown that the government’s response has been popular. Other polls show that Swedes are among the least worried by the coronavirus. That was echoed by the vibe in downtown Stockholm. In Husby to the northwest, however, the scene was quite different.
Few people moved between the brick and concrete high-rises. Of those who did, several wore face masks or plastic gloves. At the public pool, visits are down 90 percent, said pool attendant Hoz Ismael, 31, from Ursvik.
“People here are more paranoid,” he said, “especially since so many of the first deaths happened here.”
Husby, like many other socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods, is to a large extent inhabited by immigrants who live in close quarters and sometimes lack access to official communications or the language skills to understand them.
“I have three friends who ended up at intensive care for corona,” said Husby resident Salar Sauza, who is 62 and on disability. “To be honest, I don’t think the Swedish government has taken the issue seriously. Now, everyone stays at home here except the young ones. When I ask where they are going, they say, ‘To town to drink Corona.’ ”
While some hail the still-open society for trying to stave off further economic crisis, others argue it is now too late for a lockdown anyway. Björn Olsen, a professor of infectious medicine at Uppsala University, was a vocal critic of the government’s response initially, when people vacationing in Italy were allowed back into the country without going into quarantine — a decision widely believed to have kick-started the contagion in Sweden. Now, Olsen advocates limiting the damage through extensive testing and directed quarantines rather than by shutting borders and schools.
“The storm is here,” he said. “The strategy to protect the weak has miserably failed, but we can’t just cynically abandon them.”
Back on the Medborgarplatsen, Mikaela Cleve, a 35-year-old artist from the neighborhood, said she was trying to live as normally as possible.
“I think it’s important so that everything doesn’t just stop and go bankrupt,” she said. “Our health care needs money, and that comes from our taxes.”
Mikael Petterson — boyfriend of Sandra Bergkvist, the Akersberga grocery clerk — said he supports the lax restrictions, although he doesn’t see it as a thought-out strategy.
“It’s passivity,” he said. Petterson, who runs a start-up, hopes that it will pay off, and ended with a piece of Swedish fatalism often heard these days. “Those who live shall see.”