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Opinion: ‘Swedish lagom doesn’t cut it in a crisis’

Opinion: 'Swedish lagom doesn't cut it in a crisis'
People crowding a terrace bar in Malmö in late March, when its Nordic neighbours were locked down. Photo: Johan Nilsson / TT
In a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, rules cannot follow the Swedish mantra of lagom or 'everything in moderation', argues columnist Lisa Bjurwald. Especially not in a Sweden that is more individualistic than ever.

Scene: A Swedish family at their kitchen table, waving goodbye to the daughter of the house.

Dad: “Remember to keep one metre distance!”
Mum: “Remember to keep two metres distance!”
Big brother (not the 1984 party figurehead, a literal one) swings by, picks up an apple: “Remember to keep an arm's length distance!”
The kid is long gone.

Later that same evening. Little brother is stuck in front of the telly playing video games, grandma looks on disapprovingly: “I'd recommend you to go to bed at nine, dear, because…”
“Sorry, gran – you lost me at 'recommend'”.

Rules can't be lagom.

When it comes to the coronavirus, the Swedish terminology is confusing (you can choose not to listen to a friendly piece of “advice” or a “recommendation”, even though the Public Health Agency's so-called recommendations have their basis in law), not to mention the content (different state agencies have called on the public to keep distances of one metre, two, or simply an arm's length).


Photo: Jonas Ekströmer / TT

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More than anything, though, these soft, not-uncool-and-hardcore-RULES-rules-but-more-like-suggestions-rules feel wildly inappropriate fighting anything more serious than a case of bad dress sense. 

Just look at the way our packed city cafés and restaurants welcome their guests.

First on many of the chalkboards I've seen around the city centre, it's what's on offer for lunch or dinner, then the price of alcoholic beverages, thirdly the opening hours or a house specialty – and then, right at the bottom, a squeezed-in sentence about the virus: “Remember to keep the distance, have a sunny day!”. A global pandemic, reduced to the threat level of mosquitoes.

But who can blame them? The hospitality industry is fighting to stay afloat, and if the prime minister insists we're doing fine and the health authorities relax the few regulations set up in the first place, such as allowing all travel within the country as long as you're symptom-free, then no wonder it's the end of the discussion. And not just for restaurant owners.

People sunbathing at a Stockholm beach and park this week. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist / TT

Endurance (uthållighet) has been the word du jour when Swedish authorities motivate their controversial coronavirus approach, as if the pandemic was some weird, nihilistic kind of character Olympics. But surprise, surprise: it turns out that just like the virus didn't weaken once it crossed Swedish borders, Swedes didn't possess magical powers of supreme patience. We started flipping the finger at the rules in May, just about the same time as countries that had gone under a full lockdown did.

The authorities have clearly overestimated Swedes' capacity to handle complex societal crises on an individual level.

With more humility, they would have accepted that Swedes are just simple human beings, like the rest of the world's populations. But the lure of living up to the Folkhemmet ideal is strong. The near-mythological “People's Home” is a central political concept in Sweden, also used to describe our particular brand of socialism light that stretched from the 1930s to the 1970s.

But much has changed since then. Sweden is now officially the world's most individualistic country. We're not necessarily less emphatic, but we're certainly more self-obsessed. 

When Sweden's domestic travel rules were eased, many of us wondered why. Sure, the warm weather is nice and all, but aren't people still dying daily from this thing? The Public Health Agency has said that if they hadn't allowed domestic travel for the summer holidays, people would have done it anyway – but in an uncontrolled way.

That's an idea strikingly similar to a line of thinking among some Swedish parents: to (illegally) supply your underage teenagers with a bottle of booze, reasoning that they'd get drunk anyway, only in a riskier, more uncontrolled way.

But citizens aren't children, you object? Well. Tell that to the teenage girl who laughed in my face when I asked her to keep distance instead of practically sitting in my lap (to add insult to injury, the girl phoned a friend two seconds later to loudly tell him/her all about the crazy “The end of the world is nigh” lady on the bus). Now, why did we ban spanking again?

In all seriousness, a little-discussed consequence of Sweden's Covid-19 strategy is that the people rather than the politicians could be held responsible for its failures.

Come election time, the country's officials can simply shift the burden to the (supposedly) well-informed masses, trusted with navigating a high-risk pandemic on their own. In other words, what seemed like the least despotic coronavirus course in Europe, safeguarding civil rights and liberties, might have an undemocratic built-in trap. We've already heard Foreign Minister Ann Linde blame overworked and underpaid health workers for the disaster at our elderly care homes. 

If you're a responsible adult in despair, you may want to consider moving across the Baltic. According to professor of Infectious Diseases Dr Björn Olsen, government critic and not one to mince his words, Finland is “a Sweden for grown-ups”.

One Finnish respondent puts it this way in The Local's recent survey of foreign residents' view of Sweden: “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.”

Perhaps when faced with a global pandemic, the nanny state – basically the essence of the welfare state, only in more condescending wording – would have been the right idea after all?

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here. Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Member comments

  1. Thank you Lisa you nailed it brilliantly- Tusen fem hundra super tack! This is the swedes version of a 5 layer smörgåstårta with all the fillings! Champion!

  2. This is just about the most authentic piece of writing I’ve seen about Sweden’s response to COVID-19. Thank you, Lisa– you really understand the irony and short-fallings of Sweden’s image at present.

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