How are Sweden’s foreign residents reacting to the country’s coronavirus approach?

How are Sweden's foreign residents reacting to the country's coronavirus approach?
Passengers at Malmö train station keep a distance from each other. Photo: Johan Nilsson / TT
As Sweden's less restrictive response to the coronavirus gains attention and headlines around the world, how do the country's international residents feel? When The Local asked our readers to share their thoughts, we were overwhelmed by the response.

We received more than 300 replies to our questionnaire in just over a day, highlighting the need for foreign residents to have their voices heard. The readers we heard from came from six continents, had been in Sweden for periods ranging between three weeks and over 20 years, and lived all over the country. Naturally, their feelings on the coronavirus crisis were not uniform either, but some common themes emerged. 

Of those who responded to our survey, which was not scientific, 11 percent were self-isolating due to their age, symptoms or belonging to a risk group, and a further 65.3 percent did not fall into those categories but had self-isolated anyway.

Almost all the other respondents said they had reduced their social contacts or already led a very isolated lifestyle, although some faced challenges in implementing social distancing due to living in shared accommodation such as student dorms or needing to go to work. 

Measures introduced in Sweden in response to the coronavirus have been overall less strict than elsewhere.

As of April 3rd, they included bans on visiting care homes and public events of over 50 people, and a series of binding recommendations including following good hygiene, keeping distance from others in public spaces, and staying home if experiencing any cold or flu symptoms.

The latter recommendations form part of the law on communicable diseases, but there are no punishments for individuals who violate them or lockdowns as seen in many other countries. Non-essential businesses can remain open, although cafes, bars and restaurants are legally bound to offer table-service only.


Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Only two people told us they would like Sweden to introduce less strict measures, with 77.1 percent preferring stricter measures than those currently in place, and the remainder saying they felt Sweden had got the balance right. A common trend was that a large number of readers were choosing to follow stricter guidelines from their home countries.

Several readers told The Local they felt more likely to move away from Sweden as a result of its handling of the crisis, with a few saying they planned to leave once the virus was over and international travel possible, and others already actively looking to relocate.

“I am seriously considering leaving the country as soon as this pandemic is over. Communication between Swedish and international researchers could have been better,” said Alexander, a German-Korean citizen working in academia.

“There were many international researchers asking for more information on why the Swedish response is different from the rest of Europe, and replies from some Swedish colleagues dismissed concerns and deviating opinions as 'propaganda' or 'mis-information'. This is no way to treat those colleagues who have loved ones in countries worst hit by this pandemic right now, and who fear that the same will very soon happen in Sweden as well, because of an arrogant/ignorant/naive response by the government.”

But others said their opinions of Sweden had improved due to the reaction to the virus.

“I trust more the authorities than before, particularly after reading reports from public health experts such as the World Health Organisations, press conferences from Singapore and Korea, and scientific journals. It's not the most ideal solution but it's the most logical,” said an Indonesian reader who moved to Sweden in 2016.

“My view of Sweden changed positively. I like the lack of political decisions in Sweden. It's expert-driven,” said Mischa, who works in Denmark but lives in Malmö. She added: “I tend to follow the Dutch guidelines, which are more strict.”

And while she was not alone in choosing to follow a stricter self-isolation than advised in Sweden, several readers said they thought the policies from their own country would not necessarily be applicable in Sweden.
 
“I have decided I will follow the guidelines of the local government,” commented Nishant, a student from India studying for a Masters in Public Health. “I have friends and family living in different parts of the world. I have recommended them to follow the guidelines of their local government. There cannot be a universal guideline to address this crisis as situations and conditions in every country differ so please do not try to copy others.”

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'Guidelines should have been much clearer'

As well as commenting on the guidelines themselves, many international residents were critical of the way these had been relayed to the public.

“The communication is really unclear. It assumed that people know what to do in this situation. Messages like 'we need to take individual responsibility' are meaningless if nobody knows what the responsibility is,” commented a British citizen who works in advertising in Gothenburg.

“I've seen large groups of older people gathering together to play boule in parks around Gothenburg on multiple occasions, despite being told not to gather in groups. It's made me lose faith in the Swedish authorities.”

“I believe that the language used in the guidelines up to now is too lenient and focuses too much on individual responsibility. I think that considering the difficulty that the measures entail (social distancing is not easy or fun to do) the language should have been much stricter so people would have followed the instructions more. I live in a student city and until last weekend there were parties going on as if nothing was happening,” said Vasiliki, originally from Greece and living in Sweden for five years.


Crowds in Malmö last Saturday. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

“Communication has been ambiguous and often guidelines on hygiene et cetera are different from WHO guidelines. Behaviour change is complex. I live with a Swede who does not take social distancing or hygiene seriously even though her son has had the symptoms. I no longer have faith in Sweden and may well move back to UK,” said a British reader who had made the move here in 2019.

A Polish-Canadian reader said: “Even the Public Health Agency's website is lacking in most in-depth information. I have to rely on Swedish friends to piece together information but even they are not aware of any updates as often as a crisis like this requires. I have friends who went skiing in the north with no regard whatsoever for the public healthcare system. I feel Swedes are somewhat naive and live in a bubble. Maybe its understandable as they've haven't had a crisis in centuries.”

“I think that there needs to be a better communication strategy from the authorities and government, rather than relying on the media to interpret their official statements. I would expect to see huge TV, radio and social media campaigns, but unless they are just not permeating to the international community in Sweden, I don't think there is enough effort being made to make sure that all information is understood by all people (regardless of age, nationality et cetera),” said a Scottish student.

'I will trust my government, but not blindly'

The reliance on recommendations rather than enforced regulations as seen elsewhere also raised the question of mutual trust, which is apparently necessary for the approach to be successful. 

“The idea that all people in Sweden implicitly trust the government and authorities is interesting. It is not something that comes naturally to me – I will trust my government, but not blindly. I will always question their decisions and expect transparency about the decisions made and the rationale behind them,” the student from Scotland continued. “There is still some mystery around the models and data being used to inform the Public Health Authority's strategy. I do not think that is acceptable.

“They say that Swedes will follow advice without rules having to be enforced. I've heard an awful lot of talk from my colleagues about how they don't need to distance themselves because they're not in a high risk group, so if they catch the virus they'll be OK. No one is really considering the impact of catching it and then spreading it to someone who is high risk. That shocks me, since I always considered Sweden to be a very social-minded country.”


Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

Rebecca, an infectious disease specialist from the US who has lived in Sweden for 12 years,  raised a similar point: “I feel that the Swedish response actually feels 'un-Swedish' in the sense that there is no sense of solidarity. We have asked the elderly and those at high-risk to withdraw from society and receive no visitors while the rest of us can get on with our lives according to our own decisions.”

Several people were highly critical of the way that the Swedish measures had been communicated to the public.

“It comes off as arrogant to say Swedes are so much more responsible than the rest of the world that they don't need stronger government guidance – especially when the cases are increasing just as rapidly and are under-reported because Sweden has been under-testing,” said Jeremiah, an American software engineer. “I love living in Sweden and think it has created one of the best societies in the world. But Covid-19 has demonstrated the Swedish government cannot respond rapidly to this specific type of crisis.”

This reaction was shared by another reader, who works in an international school: “We don’t need rules, we are responsible people' – as if other cultures are idiots who need fines to be kept in line. Meanwhile not all people follow guidelines here. People in shops and on the street are not keeping distance, Swedish friends still want to socialise and seem to think we are uneducated 'panickers' because we choose to keep distance and keep our kid at home.”

'I'm learning a lot about how institutions work here'

“[The coronavirus crisis] hasn't fundamentally changed my view of Sweden. I am just learning a lot about how the institutions work here, and how much support the government receives no matter what they do. I am ready to accept that, although I have a different view (which is influenced from ongoing situations in other countries, in particular Switzerland, my home country),” commented Michael, who moved to Sweden as it is the home country of his wife.

“I am also learning that Swedes proudly defend their country when they take another path than most others.”

Parul, originally from India who now works with cultural integration of newcomers, said that she felt many international residents were influenced with news from their home countries and elsewhere.

“I thought about this hard and realised how much of it is to do with culture, with the messaging used and the way it is conveyed. Many of us are used to orders and bans and the authorities telling us what to do. But when trust is such a big thing here, and the authorities sort of trust people to follow their recommendations, then why are at least the Swedish people not doing so? At least in Helsingborg, I see a very clear division of all the Swedes outside, but internationals inside.

“When the Prime Minister first addressed the public for five minutes, for us it didn't seem like such a big event, but after reading a few reports, I realised how just the unusual address itself was a big thing here. All these are things we need to understand more, I suppose, before jumping into conclusions.”

'Pleasantly surprised'

Some readers pointed out the contrast between Sweden's strict policies in other areas – for example, its zero tolerance drugs policy, and alcohol monopoly – and the more relaxed measures in response to the coronavirus crisis.

“It has definitely shown that Sweden can be a reasonable country, that doesn't always immediately reach for arbitrary blanket measures like they have done in the past for many other things that affect public life (strict alcohol and tobacco rules, high drinking age, low speed limits on highways, prostitution).

“I also like that most decisions on this are taken by people that aren't elected and thus don't have to think about the next election when making decisions. Politicians are too easily swayed by public opinion, instead of looking at the facts,”, commented Lars, who is originally from Germany and moved to Sweden eight years ago.

One American who moved to Sweden for studies agreed that the strategy seemed out of character, but was less favourable towards it. “I'm surprised that the Swedish government is so lax about the coronavirus. I would've expected a stricter stance from a 'nanny state' but they ended up being like that nanny that smokes and watches TV while the kids chase each other with cleavers…” they wrote.


An English-language information screen asks Stockholmers to follow the latest advice. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

'Demographic factors make the response unique'

'“There are many social factors to understand to fully appreciate the response that the Swedish government has taken. From what I understand, Swedish people respond to 'strong recommendations' as if it were law,” said Peter, a designer from the UK.

But he also called for clearer communication of the measures needed by individuals, explaining: “With Stockholm being such an international city with a melting pot of nationalities, I feel that there is a disconnect between what we as expats hear from our own governments and what we hear from the media within Sweden. Do other nationalities take 'strong recommendations' as seriously as someone who is Swedish born and bred? I doubt they do.”

Thibault, a Belgian-American who moved three months ago, said: “The contrast to other countries makes me feel the Swedish response may be a bit laissez faire but Swedish's particular social demographics leads me to believe if any country can attempt this tactic it would be Sweden. Half of the population already lives alone, and from what I have noticed, Swedes tend to not be very social outside of their immediate social groups already limiting the potential spread to other parts of the society.”

Another Brit, working in design, said: “It seems to be that there is a lot more onus on the population to take responsibility, with an appeal by the authorities to put the collective good above personal gain. We all know what we are supposed to do, we don't need to make it official… It's quite a utopia idea that appeals to me, and I hope it works. Although I did walk past a 20-strong jogging club yesterday.”

And to science communicator Gabrielle, the coronavirus crisis had highlighted that she may have been misinterpreting Swedish norms in other parts of her life.

“It's helped me understand Sweden a little bit better. When my boss just 'suggests' something, I now know that that is a rather serious directive! I may have missed a few cues in the past!” she commented.

Are people following the guidelines?

Several readers said that they had the impression many people were staying at home more, although a lot also reported seeing large groups – or being invited to large social gatherings by Swedish friends. 

“Whenever I do shop for food in the supermarket, I normally see many old people shopping. I guess it's hard for older people in Sweden to change their way of life as I know that they would like to be independent as long as they can be,” said Mike, an engineer from the Philippines.

And a significant number of our readers told us they didn't really know how to feel, or were conflicted.

Yatwan, who moved from the UK in 2017, said: “I’m not really sure how I feel about the Swedish response any more. I’m not angry any more and trying to enjoy my 'freedom' to be out and to inform myself and act responsibly accordingly. It is hard to stay angry with a country who trusts its citizens (and authorities) and don’t want to force to restrict the movements. Perhaps this approach is more sustainable as the crisis looks to stay for a long time?”

We'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to respond to our questionnaire. Although we couldn't include all of the hundreds of responses we received, we read every single one and have included a representative sample here. Your experiences will inform our coronavirus coverage, and you are always welcome to get in touch if you have further feedback, a question or a story to share.


Member comments

  1. As long as people behave we don´t need any more laws.

    The idea is that if you totally close down the country now, you WILL get a new wave of virus at the autumn and winter on top of the ordinary influenza and that might be a worse scenario than what we have now.

    The problem is that no one knows what the best way is and no one knows how the aftermath of this flu will be.

  2. Hello, I’m surprised to see I’m the only one feeling how hypocritical this ‘personal responsibility’ thing is. When you work, you have to follow your boss rules, even when he keeps organising meetings with 20 people in a small room, thinking he’s a hero because he is not afraid of a small virus. There’s no personal responsibility here, only a law could protect workers.

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