Here at The Local, like many other people who are able to work from home, we have been doing so for the past month. What about you, how has your daily life changed during the coronavirus outbreak?
Just like everyone else who has the opportunity to work remotely, I am doing a lot of that at the moment, with telephone and video calls and so on. All international travel is of course cancelled and so is travel within the country, so life is very different right now. And at the same time we are working incredibly hard, the government has negotiated and put forward support packages of more than 100 billion kronor ($10 billion) and the preparatory work to rapidly put together all of those reforms and proposals is very intense.
Isabella Lövin and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in a video meeting. Photo: Ninni Andersson/Regeringskansliet
I bet there are a lot of meetings. Do you get regular updates from the health agencies as well?
The party leaders have discussions every week and the Public Health Agency and National Board of Health and Welfare are there to give us updates, about everything from the infection situation and the situation for healthcare, healthcare material and the situation in Sweden's municipalities and administrative regions.
I have to say, it is incredibly impressive how the Swedish healthcare sector has been able to mobilise during this time. The number of beds in intensive care units, ventilators and protective equipment – things that there was a lot of concern about in the early days – have increased, especially intensive care beds.
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The strategy has always been to first curb the spread of infection and secondly to ensure that the healthcare system has enough resources so it does not get overburdened. The second part has so far succeeded. We still have intensive care beds available, quite a lot of them, so we have managed to increase that capacity.
It should be noted that healthcare staff are doing heroic work at the moment and are under a lot of pressure, but so far we have managed to ensure that Covid-19 patients – and all our other patients – get the intensive care they need.
You recently met with Ahmed Abdirahman, founder of politics festival Järvaveckan in northern Stockholm, who raised concern after it emerged that immigrant communities in some of the suburbs were overrepresented in the number of coronavirus cases. What did you learn in the meeting?
It was a good meeting, and it was about listening to what the situation is like in Järva and what kind of support they need to handle this situation, and also the lessons we need to understand why the infection spread so fast, especially in Järva, and is still serious in some suburbs such as Skärholmen, Tensta and Rinkeby.
How does the government plan to address this inequality going forward?
It's like all other serious events in society, the vulnerable are hit the hardest. It is that sad. We need to strengthen these groups and decrease inequality in society, that's the most important thing.
There are also lessons to be learned in how to reach out with correct information in the right ways to groups that perhaps do not follow media in the same way as other Swedes. That is something the Swedish Contingencies Agency (MSB) started dealing with fairly quickly, but a little bit too late.
Information leaflets in various languages have been put up in suburbs including Tensta. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
Not to put too fine a point on it, but when we're talking about not being reached by information, there are clearly Swedish-born people in central Stockholm who don't seem to follow the guidelines…
Yes, and that is very serious.
We need to keep going with this strategy that we have started, and that means that everyone has to take personal responsibility for making it through this epidemic, so that the healthcare sector is not overwhelmed and so that the elderly and vulnerable groups who actually risk dying with this illness do not catch it. It is important to keep repeating what we have said all along: Stay home if you feel the slightest symptom.
From the government's side it is also important that we have removed the karensdag [one unpaid day at the start of of sick leave], so that you get sick pay from the first day. We have also taken over the responsibility for sick pay from the employers, and have removed the karensdag for business-owners.
There's that, but you should also not travel, not organise public gatherings, avoid unnecessary social contact, and definitely protect the elderly. It is so important that we hold on and hold out, because this is a marathon, it is not a sprint that will be over in a few weeks, we're going to have to keep it going for a very long time.
People soaking up the sun at an outdoor restaurant on Stockholm island Södermalm. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
To briefly clarify what you said about the karensdag, you haven't completely scrapped it, have you? It is still capped (at 700 kronor, which is less than normal sick pay).
The compensation is lower, yes, but despite everything it is much better than not getting paid at all.
I also think that if you compare with other countries, it is important to emphasise our health insurance system in Sweden, that we have free healthcare and that the support system is very extensive even though there are those with less sick pay, and even though it is harder to stay at home if you don't have secure employment.
In fact, that is one of the lessons we have to learn from why it spread so much in Järva. There are many there who do not have permanent employment, who are sole traders, taxi drivers, hourly workers who come in contact with a lot of people, and they were not all reached by information [about the coronavirus in Sweden] from the very start, or your margins are so small that you would rather go to work than stay home.
Just to follow up on what you said about Swedish healthcare, it is not completely free, is it?
No, not completely, but there is a significant difference compared to many other countries where you need private health insurance and so on.
Isabella Lövin speaking with Swedish media last month. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
The crisis of course doesn't only affect immigrant communities in vulnerable areas. For example, many of The Local's readers are work permit holders, and they are affected by an economic downturn in very specific ways. If you lose your job you have three months to find a new one, otherwise you lose your right to stay in Sweden. What do you think the government should do to help them?
The government is really doing our utmost right now to save jobs and businesses. We are helping with furloughing support so that companies won't have to permanently make people redundant. Instead the government takes over responsibility for paying a very large part of furloughed workers' salary.
We are working day and night to save jobs and businesses, and that includes foreign-born workers in Sweden who are a very important resource to Sweden. It goes without saying that no matter where you were born it is incredibly important that we manage to keep our competent workforce and that companies are still here when the corona crisis subsides, when there is a vaccine and when the epidemic is over, quite simply.
But we already know that even if the government does step in, no matter how good a job the government does to rescue businesses, there will still be a lot of people who lose their jobs.
Yes, we can't guarantee that all companies will make it through this crisis and that everyone will keep their jobs, and that uncertainty applies to everyone. Hopefully we will get the wheels spinning again so that those who do lose their job can find a new one, but that is obviously something we are going to have to keep a close eye on.
Polls show that people in Sweden are generally supportive of the current strategy. The Local's readers are divided, and many would like to see stricter measures. One thing that sticks out for many is that there has been so much talk about “trust”, that the Swedish approach is built on trust.
Many Swedes have spent a lifetime nourishing that trust, but if you are one of those foreigners who have faced repeated bureaucratic hurdles, who have lost their work permit through very little fault of their own, who have waited years to receive a residence permit… how are you supposed to trust?
Our separation of powers in Sweden, where we stand out compared to a lot of other countries, is that we have independent government agencies who are solely responsible for their area, and we have a long tradition of listening to those agencies. Politicians come and go, but the agencies remain. That there is, so to speak, a hygienic distance between politics and the powers the government agencies have.
I understand… look, I hear what you're saying and I think that there are a lot of people who have felt a great sense of frustration in connection with receiving a residence or work permit and those kinds of things, and that there is a lot of bureaucracy involved.
What I think makes Swedes trust government agencies a lot is in the sense that there is no direct political control of those agencies and the decisions they make. Politicians create laws and then it is up to the agencies to carry them out. There is less room for detailed control by ministers, and perhaps less room for corruption in politicians. The way our political system is constructed creates trust in government agencies among Swedes, that you know that the execution of power is neutral.
What is the biggest misconception you have seen about the Swedish strategy? I'm speaking in general, because there have been a lot of articles written about Sweden in foreign media lately.
The biggest myth and misconception is that life goes on as normal in Sweden. It absolutely does not. We have seen Easter travel decrease by 90 percent, we have businesses going bankrupt, a record number of temporary layoffs, and a lot of unemployed people.
That's because people follow those recommendations we issue. The tourism industry has been hit incredibly hard. A lot of small businesses are on their knees because production is down or has decreased a lot. It is not business as usual in Sweden but the opposite, things are very, very tough.
No, we have not had a complete lockdown in Sweden, but if you look at people's behaviour it is a very big difference compared to a normal situation: a lot of people are working from home, a lot of people have called in sick with minor symptoms to limit the spread. You don't see your elderly relatives, you don't travel any more, and that comes as a result of people obeying the recommendations our government agencies have issued.
An almost empty office in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
Even if the majority follow recommendations, there are some who don't. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven's tone was noticeably sharper at the latest government press conference this week. It felt rather like the final warning before tougher rules are imposed. Are there ongoing discussions within the government about introducing stricter measures and what form would they then take?
We are constantly prepared to take stronger measures if it is necessary to curb the spread of infection, and if the situation deteriorates we will look at further measures. Exactly what kind of measures depend on where we see that there may be big problems ahead. We are now issuing very strong calls not to travel, not to have parties at Walpurgis and definitely not demonstrations on May 1st.
But we also need to hold on and hold out. This is, as I said, a marathon, not a sprint. The Swedish government's strategy is to make sure that those measures we take are acceptable enough to people that it is possible to keep them going – we're now talking about many months or maybe even years.
Apart from being deputy prime minister, you are also the environment minister, so I have to ask: How has Sweden's climate work been affected by the coronavirus crisis, or how do you expect it to be affected?
One of the government's main priorities is that Sweden will become a fossil-free welfare state, and that work continues. Major investments will be required when we kick-start the economy after the corona crisis, and those investments have to be green, they have to be sustainable. We're not just dealing with one ongoing crisis, the climate crisis continues. Last year was Europe's hottest year ever, two years ago we had extreme drought and forest fires in Sweden, this winter was the warmest in Sweden.
We have an extreme challenge ahead of us to get rid of fossil fuels, and I'm talking about rebuilding the economy in a sustainable way after the corona crisis. That's true both for the Swedish climate work, but also in regards to the EU and the rest of the world. It is very important that the enormously large crisis package that is being talked about on an EU level moves in that direction. We should have a Green Deal.
I have together with 11 environment ministers written to the European Commission about this. We are pushing to make sure that we do not forget the climate crisis during the corona crisis, which happened after the financial crisis when emissions went down, major economic stimulus packages were introduced and emissions rose to record levels after the financial crisis. We must not repeat that mistake.