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?
A street in central Stockholm in mid-November. Photo: Amir Nabizadeh/TT

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.


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 2020/12/06 00:16
I have come to Stockholm in early November JUST IN ORDER TO ESCAPE FROM THE SECOND LOCKDOWN IN ITALY, and having a respite of quasi-normal life! People outside of Italy (but I could speak for Spain, France, and many other European countries as well) cannot really figure out what it is like living in a lockdown for MONTHS ON END (the first lockdown in Lombardy lasted FOUR MONTHS). We were only allowed to go outside of our homes in order to get food and basic necessaries at the supermarket (cueing up for hours on end) or to the pharmacy. Eveything else was closed! You could not go to a gym, walk in the park, or run alone in the streets! You could not even go visiting your friends, relatives or parents in the same town without a written self-declaration of URGENT and ABSOLUTE need with yourself to show the police, otherwise you could be fined up to 3000 €! We could not do anything outside of this. <br />Those people who could work from remote for the public or private companies continued to do so, all others simply could not work, nor earn anything! All the government did was paying 600 € for two months, and that was all! No other compensation was provided for anyone!<br />Compared to this huge concentration camp-like life, Sweden mild approach to the Covid emergeny stands out like HEAVEN, believe me! And the sad truth is that numbers of both contagion cases, and most especially deaths, in those countries who adopted the strictest lockdowns and social distancing measures are MUCH HIGHER (even in proportion) to those of Sweden. In Italy we are reaching the huge number of 60.000 dead people! In proportion, it is as if Sweden had registerd 10.000 deaths, while those to date are 7000. This means a mortality rate more than 1.5 times that of Sweden, that never did any lockdown, nor imposed the wearing masks, and whose economy, and social life has going on quite undisturbed! While not only the economy of Italy is destroyed (the first lockdown alone accounted for 120.000 businesses lost, and more than half a million redundant people MORE) but also social life and the psichological balance of people, who are mostly confined to their homes alone, or when venturing outside see other people like ghosts, unrecognisable behind their masks (which are to be worn EVERYWHERE YOU GO!) is damaged beyond repair! It really seems like living in a scy-fi horror B-movie! <br />Students of all ages have been told not to approach their fellows, even at school (when they can go, since most lessons are done at home, on the remote) because they can get the infection! they have come to see their schoolmates as potential killers, instead of their friends! Even adults are avoiding one another when they occasionally meet in the streets, even though everyone is wearing a mask, as if they could be contaminated by just passing by! The histerical approach of the government, which has spread FEAR and TERROR for months on end through the media, has convinced the majority of people that they can get Covid as soon as they venture out of their homes, and die in a few hours! And now in the so-called "second wave", the government while showing they did not learn ANYTHING from the first wave (we still have the highest death rate of all Europe, both overall and in proportion to the population) has again adopted a sorf of soft-lockdown approach that is doing even more damage! More businesses have closed, more people have lost work and all means of living, and the contagion is still rampant! I would only tell foreign people who think that the Swedish approach to the virus is too mild, to just go home a few weeks, and experience what miserable life are doing people in their own countries of origin (especially Italy, Spain France, etc.). I am sure they will come back to Sweden with more positive views of the Swedish strategy against Corona! For my part, I see the day I will have to go back home to Milano as DREADFUL!<br /><br />By the way, if you think that simply wearing a mask is saving you from getting Covid, then just wear one yourself! Why asking for ALL OTHER PEOPLE to do that??? I can testify from my own experience in Italy, that wearing a mask everywhere and avoiding contact with all other peaople has not spared us from the worst death rate of Europe after Belgium!
Anonymous 2020/12/05 23:18
The Swedish approach has been a failure, and the reasoning (less vulnerable to second wave) was proven wrong. So instead of meandering and trying to justify (Tegnell), just look left / right for inspiration for the appropriate adjustments: Finland springs to mind, where a functioning test-and-trace program and mask wearing provide two widely recommended measures to keep Covid in excellent check. Denmark / Norway report about a tenth of Sweden’s mortality rate. And no, masks are not ultimately proven to be effective. But is it really too much to ask to wear a mask in public for a few months if you even could save one life doing that? <br />
Anonymous 2020/12/05 21:56
I'm more concerned about someone in the close vicinity inadvertently sneezing. I observe the 1-2 metre rule as much as possible, but you can't always stop somebody unintentionally getting close to you for a couple of seconds no matter how careful you are or which country you live in. Even with a strict lockdown, you're allowed out from time to time. There are literally thousands of statistics out there to suit everyone's taste and bias, but Switzerland, Austria and Portugal for example have comparable populations to Sweden – and they have similar Corona/Covid statistics although all three have had strict lockdowns and extensive use of facemasks. <br /><br />France, Italy and Spain have had extremely strict lockdowns and facemask rules but are among the top 10 worst-hit countries in the global CSSE table. Go figure! It certainly doesn't convince me that lockdown and facemasks are the solution. The one mystery that no 'expert' can so far explain is why Finland and Norway have managed so well, which should be compared with the rest of Europe rather than only with Sweden – and to seriously find out their secret rather than to constantly say that Sweden got it wrong because N and F have done so well. Grrr.<br /><br />Instead, I'm much more concerned about the long-term mental health effects of entire populations being deprived of their normal socialising routines and habits, both at work and leisure, sports activities, etc. Uninterrupted schooling is also incredibly important both from a teaching aspect and for children to regularly interact with their friends and classmates. Sweden was criticised for not closing schools in the spring, but many countries are now following Sweden's example this autumn. There are also the economic consequences of lockdown (welfare, unemployment, etc) but I'll perhaps keep that for another time…<br /><br />
Anonymous 2020/12/05 15:36
I am a foreigner here, and this article does very much reflect what I feel. (It's also directly based on readers' responses to the survey, giving percentage summaries of respondents' opinions - but also including a range of readers' opinions, both for and against.So unless Adriano is accusing the Local's journalists of simply lying and making everything up, I don't know how he can say this.) It's true for me too - I love this place .... but this is the first time I've felt worried, somewhat amazed and really disappointed as a citizen here. Sweden has very clearly not given the best response in the world to this situation - which is, incidentally, very definitely a pandemic.
Anonymous 2020/12/05 14:36
Dude, chill it's just an article, and it could be right or wrong. It doesn't matter. <br />You're entitled your opinions, but doesn't mean other's are wrong or biased. You should reflect on why you reject so strongly the information of this article, maybe you're afraid they could have a point? It's a difficult time for everyone and yelling at each other we're wrong, won't help anyone. <br />Take care <br />Peace. <br />Dave
Anonymous 2020/12/05 09:38
This article is ridiculous, this is not what the foreigners think, this is what you think about the government response. I am a foreigner living in Sweden and I think that Sweden gave the best response in the world to face this epidemic (that is not a pandemic). I flew from my country that has become a tiranny and you would probably feel better living down there. Please, stop being so fanatic and out of the world.

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