It was an email from the principal telling her that online teaching would no longer be continued, and ordering her to send her two children back to school, that broke the camel's back for Lara. Or was it when her husband fell ill after returning from a ski holiday in France, struggled to walk without getting exhausted, and was only offered a coronavirus test after fainting at home (the test came back negative, although that was several weeks after he first developed symptoms, which the doctor diagnosed as bronchitis at the time).
Her family had always intended to return to the US this summer after both her and her husband's terms as visiting researchers in Sweden ended, but in early May they packed their bags and flew home, cutting their stay short by three months.
“What changed our minds was the school mandating that all kids go back. We said: we're not getting the healthcare we need, the school is not providing options, we're going to head back,” she told The Local.
“We know healthcare in the US has its challenges as well, but we know how to handle the system. Here it feels like we've been pushed away when asking for help.”
Sweden's advice at the time they came back from France was that anyone who developed symptoms after returning from travel in China, South Korea, Iran or northern Italy should isolate and contact healthcare services for a coronavirus test. But the Public Health Agency has since said that the main source of the infection spreading in Sweden was tourists returning from other countries, who were not tested.
Lara said that in general she and her family had enjoyed their stay in Sweden and looked forward to visiting again at some point in the future. But theirs is not the only experience affected by disillusionment with how the country has handled the pandemic. The coronavirus has been linked to more than 5,000 deaths in Sweden.
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A protester demonstrating outside the Public Health Agency's headquarters. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
When The Local asked our international readers based in Sweden in early April how they felt about the country's coronavirus approach, 77 percent of more than 300 respondents said they preferred stricter measures than those in place, with many choosing to instead follow guidelines from their home countries.
In early June, The Local asked readers whether or not the Swedish response to the virus had affected their view of the country, and received a mix of responses. Some of those who responded to the survey, which was not scientific, said it had made them reassess their future.
“I am extremely disappointed in Swedish society and the state,” said a Finnish software developer, one of many respondents who said they were disappointed in the welfare safety net. “The promise was: you pay high taxes and in return we'll take care of you in case of need. The reality has happened to be the opposite.”
“It definitely made me reconsider my future here in Sweden. I don't want to be here when another crisis strikes in the future. Because I can no longer believe that the Swedish government is going to handle it well and I don't feel immigrants can count on the Swedish government to be heard and on the Swedish people as allies,” said Geisa Polina, who was born and raised in Brazil but has lived in several countries.
“I would say that it has changed my view for the worse, or not at all,” said Nadia, a researcher from the US and Spain. “I don't think Sweden is a hostile place, and I am no longer angry at its inaction, but I am a deeply political person who believes that citizens should be active and should mobilise to help each other, and I'm sad to say that I haven't seen much solidarity here at all.”
Many also said that while they respected how Sweden had handled the situation, the difficulties of being far away from family in times of crisis, and the uncertainty of border restrictions, had affected their future plans.
“It has not changed how I feel about Sweden, but the prospect of difficulty visiting home in the future has made my family consider our future plans,” said an engineer from Ireland.
A sign in Malmö urging people to keep their distance. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
Several readers highlighted a divide between Sweden's native-born population and newcomers. Swedish authorities have published general information in English and other languages, but new advice is often not immediately translated and more specific information is sometimes available only in Swedish.
“In a country of over two million immigrants out of the 10 million total population, I find it unbelievable that there has been no effort from the authorities to each out to the immigrants. It is hard to find official information in English easily. And the immigrants are not going to feel integrated to this country if repeated claims of how great Swedish culture is and how much trust people have in the authorities. To many of us, all of this is still very alien since an extraordinary situation like this is when it strikes you the most that you are not in your home country,” said a post-doctoral researcher from India, who wished to remain anonymous.
Just over 60 percent of 170 respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “People in Sweden have in general been doing their part in curbing the spread of the coronavirus”.
Conversely, around half said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement when applied to their immediate circle of friends, and almost 88 percent thought they themselves had done their part.
Some said differences in how strictly people followed the guidelines had led to strains on friendships.
“Sweden in my mind is such a cautious and rule-following place, but the reality has been almost opposite to this during the coronavirus pandemic,” said a British reader who moved to Sweden in 2013.
“I feel a little ostracised from my friends at times when I'm unwilling to go to crowded bars with them, and because I've been staying indoors and reducing my social circle considerably. However, I've been making deeper connections with the friends that are willing to go for a walk or sit in the park with me rather than the ones who want to go clubbing.”
A sign in Stockholm reminding people to keep a two-metre distance from each other. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
Almost two-thirds of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “Swedish authorities have in general been doing their part in curbing the spread of the coronavirus”.
But what emerged when readers were asked to elaborate was that relatively few had an entirely black or white opinion, with many saying that they were conflicted about how they felt about the situation.
“It is a bit scary how much people here seem to be trusting the government without questioning. But I like that Sweden has made its own decision regarding coronavirus. It kind of increases respect for the country in some sense, even though it was very confusing. I do not consider moving out, but it revealed the country's character better,” said a Lithuanian reader who wished to remain anonymous.
Several readers also said that Swedish authorities' trust in allowing individuals to make their own decisions, and reluctance to lock down completely, had in fact changed their view of the country for the better.
“I always thought Sweden's response sounded reasonable and scientifically grounded. I still think so, despite the obvious failure in protecting the care homes. There have been mistakes, obviously, but also good decisions and things that need to be discussed,” said Jennifer from France, who added that although she still “love living here and want to stay here” she was worried how the crisis would affect her job in Sweden.
“I was surprised that the Swedish government worked as a single force to combat this disease without anyone trying to make it politically beneficial to them. This has changed my image of Sweden to the better,” said a software engineer from Ukraine, who wished to remain anonymous in the article.
“I'm happy to be in Sweden at the moment. I didn't plan to remain here for more than a month but I changed my mind and I decided to remain here for the next months,” said an Italian reader who wished to remain anonymous, but added that he agreed with the Swedish authorities' decisions.
“This phase has made me realise how an individual also plays a major role in helping the society in tough times,” said Veerappa Kaujageri, an engineer from India, who also called for more guidelines available in English in public places across Sweden. “This has made me think of staying in Sweden 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 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.