Coughs and racial slurs: Sweden's foreign residents reveal abuse for wearing face masks

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Coughs and racial slurs: Sweden's foreign residents reveal abuse for wearing face masks
Sweden has not recommended general wearing of face masks, and some international residents who have taken the precaution have reported receiving abuse. File photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

Foreign residents in Sweden have told The Local how they have faced xenophobic abuse for wearing face masks and asking people to keep their distance in public places.


Last Thursday, Eva, who lives in Jämtland, was wearing a face mask to do her weekly food shop. She began doing this in situations where it's not possible to ensure physical distance, in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, although Sweden has advised that the general public do not need to wear face masks. 

She's not alone in this attitude; surveys by The Local have suggested that many foreign residents are opting to follow guidelines from their own countries and the WHO rather than, or in addition to, Sweden's advice.

"I'm used by now to the laughs and the comments behind my back when I'm wearing it," she told The Local. But this time the reaction went beyond that.

Like the other people The Local spoke to for this article, she asked for her identity not to be made public; the people we spoke to were concerned for their personal safety or for repercussions at work for speaking out about their experiences. 

Face masks on statues in central Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

'Not welcome here'

The supermarket was almost empty, but Eva noticed a man looking at her and standing close to her on a few occasions. When she went to pay for her food, she said he stood just a few centimetres behind her, not holding any items and ignoring the 'Keep your distance' markers on the floor.

"I asked him to move behind the safe line, but he refused and starts laughing and calling me an idiot. At that moment his wife comes, grabs the man by the arm to put him behind the line, but he refuses and pushes his wife. She did manage to move him closer to the line. I told him that I'm not putting my groceries out of my basket until he keeps the distance, he laughs," she said.

Eva took out her phone and started recording a video seen by The Local, in which she asks the man in Swedish to keep his distance, pointing at the markings, and he says "I am keeping distance" while remaining in front of the line. She says the man then called her an "idiot", a "clown", and then started commenting on the fact she came from another country, while staff at the supermarket did not intervene.

"I told him I'm Swedish too, then he laughs and keeps insulting me, then I have had enough and I said that Sweden is the country full of idiots because they refuse to keep distance. The guy at the checkout shouts at me, not at the man, and I say I'm not coming back [to the shop] if that's the way they treat people that try to keep distance. The guy at the till shouts and says 'you are not welcome here'."

"I have been living here for thirteen years, I have the Swedish nationality and for the first time I'm seriously considering leaving the country," she told The Local.

The supermarket sent her an apology for what happened, saying she should not have been thrown out for trying to keep distance, and saying that they would contact the store directly.

But she's far from the only person who says they have received xenophobic abuse in Sweden during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Wearing a face mask is not the norm in Sweden. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT


'Coughing in my face'

Among the people who spoke to The Local, those with a white European background (including Swedes) were more likely to report being stared at or laughed at, while verbal abuse had been more often aimed at those who were non-white and especially towards people of Asian ethnicity or appearance.

Mask-wearing is associated with Asian countries such as China, Japan and Hong Kong where it is commonplace, partly due to cultures which see sneezing or coughing in close proximity to others as rude, but also due to the region's experience dealing with infectious disease outbreaks such as SARS and MERS. 

"I suspect the abuse happens more towards immigrant-looking people. My husband, who is Caucasian, goes out much more than I do wearing a mask, yet he has never experienced anything like this," an East Asian woman in Stockholm said. 

She had experienced a teenager coughing in her face while she was coming home from grocery shopping wearing a mask and, on another occasion without her mask, a group of teenagers surrounded her calling out "corona" and "Chinese virus".

The woman said she now avoided shopping by herself when possible, and that East Asian friends in Sweden had told her they were scared to wear their masks, despite feeling safer from the virus, due to fear of being verbally or physically attacked.

Readers of an East Asian background have previously told The Local they've experienced people treating them differently since the outbreak started, and one Chinese student and his girlfriend were physically attacked after a couple started taunting them for their face masks on a Stockholm subway train.

Victim Support Sweden (Brottsofferjouren) told The Local they didn't have any information about any rise or other trend in hate crimes, but that they can offer emotional support, practical help, and information about both contacting police and applying for compensation to victims of hate crimes. More information about what the organisation offers can be found here.

Deliberately infecting another person with a disease, including by coughing at them, could be classed as assault, a police spokesperson told The Local. They said that even if the person coughing was not infected, the incident could still be classed as molestation, but it would depend on the circumstances.

"We have not received any reports, as far as we know right now, regarding attacks or molestation with racial or ethnic minorities linked to the coronavirus," the press spokesperson said. 

People wearing face masks take photos in Stockholm in late March. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

'Disturbing and awkward'

A recent report from anti-racism organisation Expo warned of the risk that the coronavirus crisis would lead to increased racism, noting that abuse of people of East Asian appearance had been reported around the world including in Sweden, and also that far-right and racist groups had used the virus outbreak to spread conspiracy theories.

One reader, a PhD student who is Hispanic with Middle-Eastern ancestry, was wearing a mask on the commuter train to university when she was verbally harassed by a Swedish woman. 

"As soon as she saw me she looked annoyed, then she came and shouted something in Swedish I couldn't understand. When I said I didn't speak Swedish, she got out her phone and showed me a collection of images of starving children wearing face masks and symbols of communism, which was on a Facebook page. She kept speaking Swedish in an aggressive manner and I was nervous," the student said.


She isn't sure what the woman was saying, but believes it was related to conspiracy theories about the use of face masks, and online campaigns arguing that only authoritarian states ask their citizens to wear them. After leaving, the woman then came back to show the student more pictures, this time showing women and burqas and people in face masks, apparently equating the two. 

"She shouted that I was a 'stupid woman', I think her English was limited so she couldn't say more and she said more stuff in Swedish. Eventually she left and started hitting herself in the head. I didn't think she'd have the physical strength to attack me, but it was all very disturbing and awkward," the student continued.

Encouraged by a colleague, she reported the incident to police in the hope of making authorities were aware of apparently racially motivated abuse. The first police officer she spoke to said the incident was a hate crime, but the second officer she had contact with was initially unsure whether the incident could be reported.

"It seemed like there's no fixed criteria for what is a hate crime, it took a while to convince her to take my report. When I mentioned I was Hispanic and that people often ask me if I'm from a Middle Eastern country due to my ancestry, she took my report. The police also asked if I wanted support, but I'm fine, I just want the authorities to know about this."

The student has been living in Sweden for three years, and says this is the first time she's directly experienced xenophobia. Her experience has been more positive here on the whole than in other European countries she has lived in, but now she says that every time she gets on the train wearing her mask, she feels slightly nervous due to the incident.

Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

'Stigmatisation of masks'

Several of the people who spoke to The Local felt that their treatment was motivated by ignorance over the purpose of face masks during epidemics, leading to stigmatisation of people wearing them, and an assumption that they were sick or infected. 

Others told us they had not experienced outright abuse, but had noticed receiving strange looks while wearing a face mask, and said people kept extra distance from them while still walking close by other strangers who were not wearing masks.

Sweden is also one of few countries still not recommending mask-wearing, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated its own recommendations from saying masks should be worn when showing symptoms or when caring for a sick person, to recommending that governments ask all members of the public to wear them while in public places where social distancing can't be guaranteed.

Sweden has chosen not to update its own guidelines correspondingly, highlighting that the WHO said widespread mask-wearing was "not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence". State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has expressed concern that encouraging mask-wearing could make people complacent about other, scientifically proven ways of limiting infection spread, from hand hygiene to staying at home while sick.

"I’ve never asked people to keep a distance because I feel like I’m not in the position to tell them what to do," said an Italian freelancer in Norrland, who has been wearing her mask in grocery stores and other spaces where keeping distance isn't possible, in line with the WHO guidelines. "I’m in their country and their authorities haven’t educated them about how dangerous this virus can be, so I just try to deal with it."

Although she hadn't been verbally harassed or experienced being badly treated, she said that people often stared, laughed, and even coughed intentionally in her direction – apparently mocking her. These experiences have impacted how she views Sweden, saying: "I moved here because I looked up to Sweden and its people and I appreciated people’s open minds. It hurts me to see the country I looked up to for many years giving little importance to vulnerable groups."

Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT


'Scared of what?'

A 37-year-old from Spain, who has lived in Stockholm for over seven years, had had a similar experience. While she had not personally experienced harassment, she felt she was treated as if she was doing something wrong when she wore her mask.

What worried her most was when people working in medical care behaved this way.

The 37-year-old, who is pregnant, went to hospital in late April after suffering a foot injury and being advised to go to the emergency department by the 1177 helpline. Due to her pregnancy and her concerns that a hospital could be a high-risk environment for spreading infection, she wore a face mask. 

"All the nurses I had contact with were wearing no protective equipment, not even those receiving the patients initially. The first nurse asked if it was my ankle [that was the problem], why was I wearing a face mask. I said I am pregnant and was scared. And she said 'scared of what? Everything?' I could tell she was upset by her tone of voice," the woman told The Local.

She received similar comments from the other nurses she came into contact with, assuming due to the mask that she was contagious – although they were more accepting when she explained that it made her feel safer.

Still, she was concerned both about the lack of understanding about why people wore masks, and what she perceived as a critical attitude towards people's personal decisions.

"Most of us [who wear face masks] are concerned about spreading the disease further because we know about asymptomatic transmission, or maybe have some condition that makes us more vulnerable," she said.

"The attitude towards critics [of the Swedish strategy], that 'you don't understand Sweden', dismissing their concerns, and constant comments about how Sweden is much better than every other country to deal with this has definitely affected also the way I feel about living in Sweden."

If you experience or witness a hate crime in Sweden, you can call the police emergency number 112 while it is happening, or report the incident to a police station or by calling 114 14 afterwards. If the incident takes place on public transport, in Stockholm you can call the transport operator's safety helpline at 020 120 25 25; other regions may have similar services. You can also get in touch with Victim Support Sweden by calling 0200 212019, and you do not need to have made a police report to access their services.


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 2021/02/08 09:36
Tegnell is incompetent it's like he's saying don't wear a mask because it makes you potentially more dangerous. I guess the Swedish government should also advise against wearing seatbelts using the same logic.
Anonymous 2020/07/02 11:28
Glad to see people finally starting to get their eyes opened about a "Swedes are open minded" myth.
Anonymous 2020/07/02 03:29
Sweden os in the fiftyth place in deaths considering the population (not including small countries like San Marino and Andorra). Look's like this is not clear do sweden. Why the news don't show the true?
Anonymous 2020/07/01 20:14
I'm a woman from East Asia and living in Sweden for 5 years.<br />I was threatened by a Caucasian woman on the street while having a walk with my 8 moths years old boy.<br />(I was not wearing a face mask btw)<br />Threatened not only verbally, but also she showed her intention to hit me with her action.<br />I got shocked first since I have never experienced such an incident in my life, and got scared to be out with my little boy later. I still have a problem to go out in public and avoid to meet people.<br />I have decided to go back to my country for a while since I feel unsecured and uncomfortable to stay in this country.<br />I feel it's "evacuation", not just "going back" to my home country.<br />I have a job and own family here but not sure if I wanna come back...<br />This experience dramatically changed my view of Swedish people unfortunately.<br />I don't know if this COVID-19 changed many of Swedish people's behavior or attitude toward to the people who has foreign backgrounds. Or COVID-19 is just a trigger to explode Swedish people's hates against to other races!?<br />I feel this kind of racism will increase more even after this pandemic.
Anonymous 2020/07/01 18:14
Hi, I'm Spanish as well and it's quite disrespectful towards real racism to consider a xenophobic act the first case. She called all swedes idiots plus, I guess, she was not attacked based on her ethnic but on her wearing a mask and making a comment to another person. Of course the man's reaction is not good, but that's definitely not a xenophobic act.
Anonymous 2020/07/01 03:50
I wear a mask when I go in the bus/subway or in a shopping mall, no one ever coughed or insulted me. But I'm a 186 & 90kg guy. I can't help notice that all the persons harassed in your article were women. It's despicable cowardice.
Anonymous 2020/06/30 19:49
"I said that Sweden is the country full of idiots because they refuse to keep distance."<br /><br />Well I mean you just called everyone in Sweden an idiot, what do you expect?

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