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‘I’m 72 but my younger partner works in a hospital’: Stories from self-isolation in Sweden

Although Sweden is not under lockdown like many of its European neighbours, people who are aged over 70, belong to a high-risk group, or experience any cold- or flu-like symptoms have been asked to avoid all social contact due to the risks associated with the coronavirus. Here's what some international residents who fall into those categories told The Local.

'I'm 72 but my younger partner works in a hospital': Stories from self-isolation in Sweden
People aged over 70, in high-risk groups, or with symptoms of the coronavirus, have all been asked to stay home and avoid social contacts. File photo: Jessica Gow / SCANPIX / TT

Helena, a retired economist whose specialism is healthcare policy, said she was struggling to follow the guidelines that require over-70s to limit social contact.

“I feel that Sweden has done very little to safeguard the health of older people. It is very difficult to self-isolate when other people do not observe physical distancing and look at you strangely when you are trying to avoid them,” she said. 

Carolyn, a 70-year-old retiree originally from the US, had also observed that many people were gathering in large groups, saying: “I am surprised that restaurants are still allowed to be open in the larger cities and it seems that people are still flocking to any ray of sunshine together, but again, that seems to be the larger cities.”

She and her partner, aged 66, were self-isolating due to their age, but she said they were happy to be going through the experience in Sweden.

“We lead a quiet life anyway so I would not claim this is stressful for us. Fortunately, there has been no panic-buying of anything where we live and everyone in the municipality seems to be acting responsibly. 

“My husband is from England and talks a lot with his family there, who are also self-isolating, but in small flats and having to queue for the pharmacy or groceries outside, going in one at a time, which has not happened here. Overall, the benefits for my husband have far outweighed any other places we could have retired to.”


File photo: Fredrik Sandberg / TT

Their experience was similar to that of another reader from the Netherlands, who asked to remain anonymous. He explained: “My wife and I decided early on to self-isolate. My wife has Crohn's which is an autoimmune disease, and the medication she's on counteract the immune system, so we decided not to take any risks. We have been working from home for the past two weeks now.”

For this couple the changes were not too drastic as they described themselves as “relatively quiet people” and tend to avoid cities where possible in ordinary life, having first moved to Sweden eight years ago.

They were looking on the bright side: “We came to Sweden for the nature, so we are enjoying nature in our isolation at the moment and it feels like vacation.”

But for many in high-risk groups, unclear guidelines and difficulties in avoiding social contact were leading to stress and fears for their health. 

A British reader working in academia, who asked to remain anonymous, was concerned by the fact that advice from Swedish and British authorities as to whether she was considered high-risk was inconsistent. She had been ill with symptoms including a fever, cough and chest pain.

“I am diabetic, which is not included in the Public Health Agency guidelines as a risk group, but is in most other countries. I am also an infectious disease epidemiologist. I have been following the outbreak closely since December, and am a member of two international networks responding to the pandemic,” she explained. “I started working from home before any recommendations to do so.”

Photo: Linda Forsell / SvD / SCANPIX

Sweden's Public Health Agency's FAQ about the coronavirus on April 7th stated the following in relation to which groups are considered high risk:

“Since the virus is new, we have limited knowledge about which groups might run a higher risk of developing severe illness, or how much higher the risk is for them. Available data from the ongoing outbreak indicate that old age is the most prominent risk factor. Older age combined with pre-existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, or diabetes is also associated with developing a severe form of COVID-19.”

There was no specific mention of which conditions constituted a risk group for under-70s, but the agency did say: “If you have a disease that generally poses an increased risk of serious disease in respiratory tract infections, even if you are younger than 70, you should consult your doctor about treatment and what you can do to reduce the risk associated with Covid-19.”

For Randall, a 72-year-old American who made the move four years ago, the advice for over-70s was lacking.

“I am trying mainly to self-isolate but my younger partner works in a hospital, so I feel as exposed as he is,” he said. “It would be very hard for us to live separately for an indefinite period. The approach Sweden is taking purportedly puts emphasis on protecting people with underlying health conditions and those over 70. I don't see any specific protections other than 'advice' to self-isolate. That is possible for many but almost impossible for others.

“For those of us who are married or living with younger partners our risks increase as long as the authorities do not also focus on keeping the virus from spreading at every level. My partner and I have moved to Sweden from the USA because we love so many things about this country. We are disappointed and frankly surprised at Sweden's response to Covid.

“It's not that we feel the problem has not been thought out, it's more of an uneasy feeling that there are not enough specifics coupled with a possible slowness to act as things change quite dramatically every day. I generally love that Sweden is such a deliberative democracy but over-deliberation can decrease efficiency in dealing with crises.”


File photo: Janerik Henriksson / TT

Another reader, a father of a toddler, had self-isolated after showing symptoms, despite not being offered the coronavirus test. He was most worried about the impact of his isolation on his child.

“I had to close myself in a separate room and my one-and-a-half-year-old is always worrying that 'why my father acting so weird' and he cries when I ask him to keep a distance from me and my room,” said the reader, who has also had to cancel a summer trip home to Pakistan to see his mother and siblings.

“It is a horrible feeling when you are not sure if you are infected by the coronavirus (because of the unavailability of the test), or if you are isolating yourself for nothing and taking double pain.”

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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 of those relating to self-isolation 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.

What should you be doing to help reduce the rate of infection?


In Sweden, the official advice requires everyone to:

  • Stay at home if you have any cold- or flu-like symptoms, even if they are mild and you would normally continue life as normal. Stay at home until you have been fully symptom-free for at least two days.
     
  • Practise good hygiene, by regularly and thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, using hand sanitiser when that's not possible, and covering any coughs and sneezes with your elbow.
     
  • Keep distance from all other people when in public places. That includes shops, parks, museums, and on the street, for example. The World Health Organisation recommends keeping at least a 1.5-2 metre distance.
     
  • Avoid large gatherings, including parties, weddings, and other activities.
     
  • Work from home if you can. Employers have been asked to ensure this happens where possible.
     
  • Avoid all non-essential travel, both within and outside Sweden. That includes visits to family, planned holidays, and any other trips that can be avoided.
     
  • If you have to travel, avoid busy times such as rush hour if you can. This reduces the number of people on public transport and makes it easier for people to keep their distance.
     
  • If you are over 70 or belong to a high-risk group, you should stay at home and reduce all social contacts. Avoid going to the shops (get groceries delivered or try to find someone who can help you), but you can go outside if you keep distance from other people. Read more about the help available to those in risk groups here.
     
  • By following these precautions, we can all help to protect those who are most at risk and to reduce the rate of infection, which in turn reduces the burden on Sweden's healthcare sector.
     
  • Read more detail about the precautions we should all be taking in this paywall-free article. Advice in English is also available from Sweden's Public Health Agency and the World Health Organisation.

 

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COVID-19

Did Sweden’s state epidemiologist really get a big job at the WHO?

For his supporters, it was well-deserved, for his detractors a case of failing upwards. But when Sweden's Public Health Agency announced this month that state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell was taking a job at the World Health Organisation, both sides assumed it was true.

Did Sweden's state epidemiologist really get a big job at the WHO?

Now, it seems, the job might not be there after all. 

At the start of this month, Sweden’s Public Health Agency announced that Anders Tegnell was resigning to take up a post coordinating vaccine work with the World Health Organisation in Geneva. 

“I’ve worked with vaccines for 30 years and have at the same time always been inspired by international issues,” Tegnell said in the release. “Now I will have the chance to contribute to this comprehensive international work.”

During the first and second waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tegnell shot immediately from obscurity into the spotlight, gaining such celebrity status in Sweden that one fan had his profile tattooed onto his arm.

Internationally he was hailed by lockdown sceptics for his reasoned arguments against overly restrictive measures to control the spread of the virus. 

His new WHO appointment was reported all over the world. 

But on Tuesday, the Svenska Daglabdet newspaper revealed that the job had not yet been awarded. A spokesperson for the WHO said at a press conference in Geneva that “there is some confusion”, and that “this is an internal question.” 

According to the newspaper, there is even “a certain level of irritation” behind the scenes at the WHO that Sweden acted too soon and dispatched Tegnell to a job that did not actually exist yet. 

“We have received an offer from Sweden, which is still under discussion,” the organisation’s press spokesperson, Fadela Chaib, told the newspaper. 

On Thursday, the Public Health Agency’s press chief Christer Janson conceded that there had been a mistake and that the negotiation had not been completed.  

“We believed it was done, but it wasn’t,” he told Expressen in an interview. “It’s been a much longer process to get this completed than we thought. There’s been a misunderstanding and we regret that.” 

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