13 Swedish words we've learned during the coronavirus outbreak

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
13 Swedish words we've learned during the coronavirus outbreak
A sign at a terrace cafe asks people in Stockholm to "please keep your distance", a phrase that's become very common. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / TT

From the scientific vocab we've all had to try to learn to understand what's happening, to the political terms unique to Sweden, here are some of the words that have entered our Swedish vocabularies since the start of the crisis – and which could help you better understand what's going on.


Statsepidemiolog – state epidemiologist

There probably aren't many of us who knew this word, or much about the holder of its title, Anders Tegnell, before the outbreak. Statsepidemiolog is a senior role at the Public Health Agency. 

The role was first created when the National Bacteriological Laboratory (SBL) was set up in 1955, when its holder was the head of that state authority. The SBL later became part of the Institute for Communicable Disease Control (Smittskyddsinstitutet) in the 1990s, which in 2013 became part of the Public Health Agency.

To get the job, you need a strong background in virology, bacteriology, and/or epidemiology. Tegnell's experience includes a PhD in Medicine, a Masters in Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and work for the World Health Organisation creating vaccination programmes in Laos.

Anders Tegnell is interviewed following one of the daily press conferences. Photo: Lisa Arfwidson / SvD / TT

Föreskrift – regulation

The Public Health Agency, like Sweden's other state agencies, has the responsibility of putting together guidelines for members of the public and businesses.

Some of these are föreskrifter, which are binding rules and have the same legal status as laws, meaning people or companies that break them face sanctions. The main difference is that unlike laws, they are issued by an agency rather than going through parliament, because the government has authorised the Public Health Agency to create föreskrifter related to curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Some of the föreskrifter that have been introduced in relation to the coronavirus include rules for businesses and shops which require them to take measures to prevent the spread of infection.

Allmänna råd – general advice

Alongside the föreskrifter, most of the guidelines from the Public Health Agency have been allmänna råd. This literally translates as 'general advice', but in English that description would be misleading. These aren't intended as tips or suggestions; the general director of the Public Health Agency has said these are "not optional" while Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has said every Swede should be following these guidelines "every minute". 

And there's a legal basis for these guidelines; the allmänna råd tell people how to comply with laws and regulations. For example, the Communicable Disease Act, which states that everyone in Sweden must "take reasonable precautions to curb the spread of infectious diseases". Instead of changing the wording of that law, the Public Health Agency updates its allmänna råd to make it clear how the public should act in order to comply with the law in the present situation. 

Some of the allmänna råd that have been introduced in relation to the coronavirus include the recommendation to abstain from large gatherings such as parties and weddings, and keeping distance from other people in public places. Allmänna råd can also be directed to specific groups, so for example over-70s have been asked to avoid all public places including shops, pharmacies and public transport.

Unlike föreskrifter, there is no legal sanction if you don't comply with allmänna råd, but if people do not comply, it's possible that these will be turned into laws or that the government would take other measures to ensure they are followed, such as closing shops altogether.

Social distansering – social distancing

This is the Swedish translation of a term that you've probably heard in your native language. It refers to maintaining a physical distance, usually of at least two metres, from other people, in order to reduce the risk of passing infection between you.

This wasn't part of the official Swedish guidelines until April 1st, relatively late to other countries, although earlier in March the Health Minister did advise people to keep distance, for example by calling friends and relatives rather than meeting in person.

Note: although the word distans exists in Swedish, when you're talking about keeping your distance, you would usually say hålla avstånd instead, and that's the phrase being used in most information campaigns and official updates.

Regulations require cafes, bars and restaurants to offer table service only and limit contact between patrons and staff. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT


Hamstring – hoarding/stockpiling

No, not a muscle but a consumer behaviour we've been advised isn't necessary in Sweden. 

The noun hamstring and the verb hamstra ('to hoard') come from the noun hamster, meaning 'hamster', the rodent often kept as a household pet. It refers to how hamsters store food in their cheeks, and describes people who buy food to stock up for future use. 

Smittspridning – spread of infection/contagion

This word crops up a lot in news reports and official statements, with authorities and the healthcare sector urging us all to take measures to minska risken för smittspridning (reduce the risk of spreading the infection). You may have heard the word smittspridning before, particularly during the flu and norovirus seasons in Sweden.

Samhällsspridning – spread of disease within society

Not quite the same as smittspridning, samhällsspridning has a specific definition. The first known cases in Sweden were importerade fall (imported cases, where the person was infected overseas), or people who had been in direct contact with known cases, but once authorities identified cases where it wasn't clear how they had caught the disease, they could say that samhällsspridning had likely begun. 

Smittspridning simply refers to an infection being spread, which can mean in general, but also between two individuals or within a specific limited environment, whereas samhällsspridning refers to a level of general spread in society.


Smittspårning – contact tracing

In the early stages of the outbreak in Sweden, authorities took a strategy of testing people who developed symptoms after travelling in areas considered high risk, and then carrying out smittspårning or contact tracing, by working out all the people they had been in contact with.

That involves asking the patient to explain who they've been in contact with and where they've been and working with public transport operators and private companies to identify the people they were in close contact with. Then, those people can be informed of the possible exposure to the virus and tested if necessary.

Once the number of cases in Sweden began to rise significantly and there were clear signs that the virus was spreading within society, this process was stopped as it was no longer considered an effective or practical use of resources.


What a coronavirus test kit could look like. Photo: Ole Berg-Rusten/NTB scanpix/TT

Flockimmunitet – herd immunity

Also called gruppimmunitet (group immunity), this term describes a situation where a population is resistant to a disease because enough of its members have developed immunity to it – either through a vaccine or through catching and recovering from the disease – that the spread of the disease is unlikely.

Swedish authorities have been accused of pursuing flockimmunitet as their goal by not imposing a lockdown, but authorities have said this is not the goal of the Swedish strategy.

There are several reasons this would be extremely risky; scientists don't know enough about the new disease to accurately say how long or to what extent people are immune to the coronavirus after catching it, or what proportion of the population would need immunity to achieve flockimmunitet. We also don't know how many people have recovered from the virus in Sweden, since only a small proportion of people have been tested.

Eftersläpning – backlog

Each day, the Public Health Agency shares an update of how many cases of the virus have been confirmed and how many people have died with the coronavirus in Sweden. Those figures refer to the numbers reported in the last 24 hours, not the number of deaths within the last 24 hours, and to begin with authorities noted there was a significant eftersläpning.

In other words, deaths were being reported several days after they took place, especially at weekends, due to factors such as different reporting techniques across regions. It takes longer to get confirmation of deaths that occur outside hospitals, such as in care homes or at home.

On April 20th, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said however that the eftersläpning was no longer as great as before, meaning that the daily figures should be increasingly representative of the previous 24 hours.


State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell at a press conference urging members of the public to 'flatten the curve'. Photo: Jessica Gow / TT

Permittera – to lay off/send home from work

Not specific to the coronavirus, yet it's been one of the consequences. It's hard to directly translate permittera (which is the verb form, while the noun is permittering) because it's not exactly the same as a lay-off in many countries and crucially isn't permanent, so it's also sometimes translated as 'to send home from work'. 

Permittering happens when it is not possible for the employee to carry out their assigned duties and so their employer sends them home from work. It's very common that they retain their salary during this time, but it's not guaranteed. Conditions may vary, including a reduction or complete stop in hours, but the employee is expected to be available for work if it becomes possible for them to go back to their role.

This has happened during the coronavirus in several affected sectors; airline cabin personnel, hotel staff, and manufacturing workers have all been sent home due to a lack of work for them.

Korttidspermittering – to temporarily lay off/send home from work

This special form of permittering was introduced by the government in March, in response to the coronavirus crisis. During 2020, employers may temporarily reduce their employees' working hours to 20, 40 or 60 percent of the contracted hours, but the employee will keep more than 90 percent of their original salary with the government footing a large part of the bill. 

The aim is to support companies affected by the virus and reduce the number of permanent layoffs, with the goal that the economy and individuals' livelihoods will be less seriously affected in the long run.

Smittbärarpenning – disease carrier's allowance

If you have to stay home from work because you're judged to pose a risk of passing on an infectious disease to your colleagues or customers, you may be entitled to this benefit. You get around 80 percent of your salary up to a maximum of 804 kronor per day, but only if a doctor has judged you to pose a risk to others.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
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Anonymous 2020/04/21 19:59
Would “permittera” not be “furloughed”? I believe that is the way the word is being used these days, in these Covid-19 times.

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