Readers reveal: How do Sweden's international residents feel about the coronavirus response?

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Readers reveal: How do Sweden's international residents feel about the coronavirus response?

International residents who responded to The Local's survey about Sweden's coronavirus response were on the whole critical of how the government and Public Health Agency have handled the crisis.


Of those who responded, 49 percent said they strongly disagreed that the Swedish government was doing a good job in response to the pandemic, while 14 percent strongly agreed. Even more (56 percent) strongly disagreed that the Public Health Agency was doing a good job.

One in four (24 percent) said their opinion of the Swedish government had improved since spring, while 63 percent said it had deteriorated. Even more people (66 percent) said their impression of the Public Health Agency had got worse since spring, with 21 percent saying it had improved.

The wide range of responses we received was striking, and there was no clear pattern linked to specific nationalities. The responses suggested that levels of confidence in the Public Health Agency and the government could be significantly lower among international residents than the Swedish population as a whole (in November, 59 percent of Swedes said they had strong confidence in the Public Health Agency). However, our survey was not scientific – find more details on how we carried it out at the end of this article.

Tony, a British retiree with Swedish nationality, was impressed by Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren and said his view of the Public Health Agency had also improved. But he felt that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven came across as weak, saying: "Löfven is more a negotiator than a leader."

Commenting on the recent number of government press conferences and changes to laws, a reader from the Philippines said: "At first I doubted if I wanted to stay here but now seeing that the Swedish government is finally doing something, I feel that somehow they have redeemed themselves."

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT


Several respondents praised the way that the response focused on input from the Public Health Agency.

"I haven't seen any panic/protests like in other countries. I like how people are communicated to like intelligent adults, not shouting orders like other countries," said one Estonian respondent. "I like that the subject matter experts actually have power over the specific situation."

But many had questions about the agency's decisions, in particular on issues where Sweden has appeared to interpret international scientific research differently from the rest of the world, such as when it comes to the effectiveness of face masks, or the role of airborne transmission. A total of 25 people either used the terms "arrogance" or "ego/egotistical" in describing the Swedish response, referring to the Public Health Agency.

"Sweden's approach to the crisis is the only serious issue that has ever caused me disappointment about living here. The Public Health Agency's response is one thing and the fact that such a minority have seemed willing to question the approach is another," said Randall, a US retiree in Sweden.


In addition to the actual measures taken, several were disappointed by the lack of stronger language or legally enforced measures.

"My experience is that if all measures are de-facto voluntary, then the most egoistic and non-caring people get to make use of the open cafes, gyms, etc, not the ones who need them most," said Sabine, a German academic who said they believed the pandemic had brought out the "worst in Swedish society".

"First I felt utterly forgotten as an international whenever they said 'Swedish people know what to do'," she said. After falling ill with Covid-19, she says she was told when receiving her test result that it was OK to leave the house as long as she didn't get close to people.

"Do they think everyone lives in a little red house by themselves, or do they think it's OK to pass while infected and infectious through common space on the way out, including several doors and a long staircase or lifts? Lastly, is there so little respect to us that tighter recommendations are prolonged the day they are due to expire?" she asked, referring to changes to local coronavirus measures, for example, which were several times extended on the final day they were due to be in force.


Swedish values

A  recurring theme was that many foreign residents felt the strategy didn't live up to their idea of Swedish values.

"Swedish hubris is killing people. I love Sweden and think it's a special place, but no place or population is that special. For Swedes to think that they don't need to abide by recommendations the rest of the world is seeing positive results from is very concerning," said Nick, who was born in Sweden and recently moved back after living most of his life overseas.

A Brazilian researcher said: "I thought that Sweden was a country where each individual was valuable and Jantelagen prevailed. Now I see the lifestyles come before the citizens, and clearly there's a big difference in whose lives are valuable." 

One reader living in Stockholm, originally from an Asian country, said she had received xenophobic comments on social media calling her a "liar", "ungrateful immigrant" and told to "go home" after criticising Sweden's handling of the pandemic.

"My friend was told on social media, 'I wish you ungrateful immigrants do not get an ICU bed'," she added.

Andrea, a Canadian in her 30s who belongs to a risk group, said she felt unsafe. "I don't trust the government or health authority at all. If something else was to happen here after this, I just wouldn't have any trust at all. They don't even seem to acknowledge that there are many people of different ages in the risk group, not just the elderly. My husband is unable to work from home since he works in construction. I feel it's only a matter of time before he brings the virus home."

For Nishad, an Indian reader, the strategy instead proves how Sweden is different. "I was surprised the moment I reached here from India in August. The Swedish approach is possible, only in Sweden. I don't think it could be replicated anywhere else." 

Comparing with home

Many of our readers contrasted the Swedish approach to that of their own countries – some noted that the lack of lockdown meant less impact on daily life than in France or Germany, or pointed to the problems caused by complex, frequently changing rules in countries like the US and UK.

"I come from a developing country. They have it way more together than Sweden. Any ideas I used to have about Swedish exceptionalism are over," a South African reader told us.

An Italian reader who described the Swedish response as "a mess sold like a win-win situation" noted that her embassy issued three press releases fact-checking statements by Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell about the coronavirus situation in Italy. 


Reconsidering the future

A total of 24 people said the pandemic had made them reconsider their future in Sweden or actively plan to leave, while one respondent, an Australian with a Swedish partner, had already left the country at least partly due to the coronavirus response.

A sports coach from New Zealand admitted: "I've chosen to lie to my family and friends about things here (saying it's better than it is) as I don't want to worry them about my family and also not to have pressure on my partner to leave Sweden."

"I was very proud of all the reasons that made this country such a positive place to live such as its inclusiveness, equality, social care and so on [...] but now we are reconsidering whether to stay. I have absolutely no blame or ill feeling towards ordinary people for the way this pandemic has played out in Sweden. This is all at the hands of several people who laid out this response," said John, a British-Swedish citizen.

On the other hand, three people said they had moved to Sweden (from the UK, France and Germany) due to the Swedish response, while another said they were taking steps to move there and several more said the handling of the pandemic made them happy to be here. 

"I am really glad to be living in Sweden now. Wouldn't want to live anywhere else. The cool and measured response of the Swedish authorities has meant that living with the virus has been made easier for the vast majority of the population," said Thomas, a student from the Netherlands.

It wasn't only the government and health authorities that readers had been disappointed here, with several criticising the response from media – some said press in Sweden had contributed to "fear-mongering", others said they had been too mild in questioning the strategy, and several said they did not live up to their role in communicating what was happening or explaining guidelines.

Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

We asked how clear people thought the Public Health Agency's recommendations were, and responses were more closely split than when it came to the handling of the response.

A total of 46 percent agreed with the statement "The Public Health Agency's recommendations are clear to me", 27 percent of them strongly agreeing, while 46 percent disagreed, 26 percent of them strongly disagreeing.

But they were less convinced that the general population was following these recommendations.

"I feel that the communication about guidelines has been good, but I feel that many are not following the guidelines," said Annelise, a nurse from the US in the process of getting her Swedish licence.

Her comment echoed a common sentiment, that in many ways life was continuing "as normal" in large parts of Swedish society, as readers reported being encouraged by employers to go into offices, seeing crowded shops and shopping streets, and packed public transport.

Daniel, a British citizen working in the cultural sector, appreciated the focus on individual responsibility and said the guidelines were followed to a high degree among people he knew. He added: "However, it is sometimes difficult to understand when the government 'recommends' something but actually mean 'do this' – the social pressure to conform in Sweden is something I haven't experienced before."

"I think that the communication strategy could have been better. It has improved, but it's almost like there is no joined up thinking between the government and the Public Health Agency sometimes. The messages about how to interpret the guidelines can be quite unclear, and vary depending on who is being interviewed for example," said one Scottish academic.

"I think that when you depend on the public to voluntarily follow guidelines, it's really important to send out clear and consistent messages, nationally or at a regional level, that cannot be misinterpreted," she added.

"The government and public health agency really seem to be looking out for the people, but the public attitude is too lax. Also, I think the restrictions were implemented a little too late, are not strict enough and almost no one around me is following any of the recommendations. This is especially true for people among my age group, the 20-25-year-olds, who go about partying, travelling by public transport and gathering in large amounts indoors, with no regard to anyone but themselves," said Akshata, a student from India.

"My view keeps shifting constantly, and I can't really blame the government or the health agency, because this situation is more complex than I can understand, and it is a relatively novel situataion, so no one really has the right answers. It is all trial and error. I do believe that the government, just like in most countries, is dealing with this virus in the best way they can, and are constantly updating their recommendations based on the changing situation. But I can say that my trust in the public health agency is dwindling."

Thanks to everyone who responded to our survey. We read all the comments you gave carefully, and will keep them in mind as we continue to report on the coronavirus and other issues that affect your lives in Sweden. 

The survey was not scientific, as the purpose was to give a snapshot of how our audience of international residents feel about the response to the pandemic. We closed it after receiving 250 responses, and removed answers that did not include a full name for verification purposes or where the respondent confirmed they did not live in Sweden or have a strong tie to the country.

We heard from readers originally from five continents, including students, retirees, unemployed people and those in a range of jobs. This is the third survey of this kind we have done since the start of the pandemic; see what our readers said in April and in June.


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