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OPINION: The pandemic has caused divides and damaged friendships in Sweden

Lisa Bjurwald
Lisa Bjurwald - [email protected]
OPINION: The pandemic has caused divides and damaged friendships in Sweden
Stockholm 20201223 Skylt med information från Region Stockholm Vårdguiden som påminner om att bara umgås med några få vänner för att bromsa smittan av covid-19 mitt bland julhandlande människor på Hamngatan i centrala Stockholm. Foto: Fredrik Sandberg / TT kod 10080

Socialising has been restricted in Sweden during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the impact on friendships goes beyond that, writes Lisa Bjurwald. Can friendships survive a crisis that has split the country into two distinct camps?


"I don’t know how I’m going to deal with post-pandemic life in Sweden," a well-established journalist wrote on Facebook recently. "My entire view of life, of other Swedes, of the society we live in has been completely turned on its head. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again."

Tellingly, the comments field was a mish-mash of those who exclaimed how "spot on!" the writer was ("husband and I are thinking of emigrating"), and those who had no idea what he was on about. Was something going on in his personal life, or why was he so upset?


It’s hard to think of another issue in recent years – even in a lifetime – that’s been so divisive in our social lives as the Covid-19 pandemic (except, of course, the Blur vs Oasis Brit-pop battle of the mid-’90’s. Still not speaking to the Blur phalanx). Some of my friendships are so fragile at this point that it feels like they could shatter into a thousand pieces the minute this is all over – and I know I’m not alone.

Why? For one, the advent of Covid-19 is not a political or cultural phenomenon that can be easily brushed aside, a "the two of us go way back, our friendship is beyond petty politics" that can be applied to matters like the left-right political divide. The pandemic touches upon the most fundamental issues of our existence; not just the obvious one of life and death, but who we are as citizens, small parts of a greater, 10 million-plus strong Us. Your actions during the pandemic speak volumes about what kind of person you are, no matter how glossy your Instagram or how much you donate to Amnesty each month.

Of course, there are two sides of this Covid social war, and a new, self-explanatory Swedish word for us holding forth in the socially distanced (or "dull," "judgmental") camp: coronamoralister.

By some, we’re seen as epic party-poopers, wagging our fingers at those free-loving spirits who’ve decided the pandemic is over… because they say so. My favourite put-down over the past year has got to be coronarädd (afraid of the coronavirus). Maintaining the proper distance and wearing a mask at a brief meeting, the person uttering it did so without any malice, which just made it more absurd: "You who are coronarädd will notice that…". Wait, say what?

It’s worth considering that the singular Swedish strategy could have contributed to labels such as coronamoralist and coronarädd.

When a nation doesn’t go for extensive risk-minimizing in the face of a threat, a large part of the population is bound to interpret said threat as a minor one – thus brushing off those who follow "recommendations" as if they were the law as frightened sheep, with a clear slant towards ridicule.

Not to mention wearing a mask despite Swedish authorities going to great lengths in pointing out how useless it is. I’ve been smacked down with coronahaverist ("corona querulant") for that one.

So how on earth are our friendships going to survive these polarising times? According to a poll published last month, all of them won’t. 43 percent of Swedes say their friendships have suffered during the pandemic, and 33 percent have a worse
relationship with their relatives now than before Covid-19. Friendships are at a particularly rough place in the Swedish capital: more than every other Stockholmer says their friendships are worse off today. And it’s probably not just because of social distancing.


"My friends are not taking the pandemic seriously," a reader recently lamented to the resident Svenska Dagbladet psychologist. "I can’t stand their egoism. Should I stop socialising with them?"

In essence, the advice was: You’re not alone in being annoyed with friends and family who aren’t acting responsibly. But it’s difficult to always do the right thing, especially when in a prolonged crisis, and your friendships deserve you having another go at talking sense into your friends.

But perhaps some friendships shouldn’t survive? It’s just as easy getting stuck in a dull non-romantic relationship as in the romantic variety, but we’re often less inclined to cut off the platonic ones. From a Swedish perspective, it could be because of our fear of confrontations – and because we don’t know how to replace them. Studies have long shown that Swedes, and international people who move here, struggle to make new friends. Stockholm is even in the last place of the Friends & Socializing chart of Expat Insider’s Getting Settled 2020 Index.

Well, here’s an opportunity for improvement. If you don’t share fundamental values with your
friends, why bother keeping up the charade? Now is a great time to tighten the bonds with those whom we do share our core values with.

More from Lisa Bjurwald:

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.

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