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

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?

OPINION: The pandemic has caused divides and damaged friendships in Sweden
A sign in Stockholm reminds people to limit socialising to only 'a few friends', but it's not only the regulations that have impacted friendships. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

“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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Member comments

  1. I think if any survey came out with results as generic as to answer the question ” has the pandemic adversely affected your family and friendship relationships?” the answer would have to be a resounding “yes”. That doesn’t mean that people have conflicting views on how strictly or lax their approach to the pandemic has been. Nor does the testimony of one psychologist.

    The author of this piece does not state explicitly her views on how people are behaving in Sweden, but implicitly she suggests that in general people are not being as careful as they could be.

    My experience in Sweden is that people have been very careful in how they interact with others. While there are always people who disregard recommendations, in my view, by and large Swedish people have been taking matters seriously.

    Sweden is alone in the world in trusting its population to do the right thing, treating them like adults and not enforcing total lockdowns which show no evidence of resulting in a better result vis a vis minimizing the effects of the pandemic.

    Countries that have enforced total lockdowns face reactionary behaviour that results in bigger problems than Sweden has ever had to face. The UK has been through 3 total mind sucking / blowing lockdowns and still the death rate is higher.

    Opinions such as the one put forth in this article are unhelpful, implicitly adding logs to a fire that would encourage our government to consider total lockdown. We should not go in this direction. If the author thinks we should she should state her reasons in straightforward terms.

    We do however, need articles that cover the devastating effect that the pandemic has had psychologically on the population, and in particular on the younger citizens of our country who are growing up like animals in a caged zoo. We who are older have the benefit of experience and memories of what they real world was like. They don’t and their lives are on hold. Are they, not the older generation, will be the ones faced with the enormous debt burden all countries are incurring in the name of closing down the economy because of the pandemic.

    Total lockdowns were from the get go the wrong strategic decision for dealing with the pandemic. The approach all along should have been protect the most vulnerable, but continue to keep the economy and society going / interacting.

    And what will be next? Governments suggesting we should keep the economy permanently closed because of each new strain that is discovered. Where does that go? It leads to death for everyone.

    So as the author says, it is time to put the pandemic behind us and applaud Sweden, her country and people, for the unique approach it has taken to the pandemic, one that I believe in hindsight will prove to have been the right course of action.

    1. You are a faker, you know that there is a spectrum of responses that can be taken. Until recently Swedes were only asked to wear a mask two hours a day on public transit, more could have been asked or demanded before reaching a total lockdown.

  2. “They were going to die anyway” – an actual quote I heard from a Swede about the old people that died due to Sweden’s terrible COVID-19 response.

    “I think Sweden has done a great job handling the crisis” – quote from a Swede. Me: “What about the 5,000 old people that died.” Them: “Yeah, I guess we could have done that better, but still.”

    Coronavirus deaths:
    Sweden: 13262
    Finland: 808
    Norway: 649

    A friend of mine drives a bus taking old people to doctors appointments. One year into the pandemic, and the bus agency is CONSIDERING recommending that their drivers wear masks.

    Sweden’s response has been a joke. Sweden has always wanted to be the moral big brother in the world who knows best. This time they were wrong. They ignored science, acted like they were saving their economy, but really the economy is no better or worse that neighboring countries. Sweden went nuts when the MS Estonia sank and 500 Swedes died. But I guess 5,000 old people don’t matter to a country that sends off their elderly to homes anyway.

  3. No one wants anyone to die needlessly. Everyone who is sane wants to preserve life. I am a liberal minded person who wants to live in a tolerant society that cares for all people in that society. I believe Sweden is currently the best example of such a society.

    When we are faced with a threat to society that affects everyone, it is only natural that we take everyone’s lot in that society into consideration. The most vulnerable, but also the large majority that propel that society forward.

    It is time we suspend our need to bicker about hurt feelings, and bad things people might say in public to us, even if we are doing the right thing. And yes, we should continue to do the right thing, social distance etc, and lead by example. But let us not bitch and complain and say it is time to leave this country. Such sentiments are weak, and frankly not worthy of this website.

    To conduct a survey that leads with a piece about hurt emotions and asking for “objective” feedback is preposterous. And irrelevant. Constructing so called objective data. Rubbish.

    We need strong voices that carve a new way forward, not those who would just point a finger and say how bad everything is. This country has something special, people who continue on with their lives in the face of a very uncertain threat.

    This happened once before. In WW 2, in the UK the saying was “Keep Calm and Carry On”. We need more of this today.

    @RT above seems to think we’ve done a terrible job here. He or she must be an expat else why read this newspaper. So then RT: where would you go where it would be better? Finland, Norway? They are experiencing new waves that prove lockdowns don’t work. We will only know once there is herd immunity. Yes, I said it, “herd immunity”, so come at me.

    It is sad that the author of this piece has had names called against her and people of her views. That is certainly not the kind of behaviour I would condone or approve of. I think all people should be entitled to take precautions freely and without insult. But it is by no means enough worth suggesting that we change the policy this country has taken.

    I don’t think self consciousness, hurt feelings and personal sorrow, even though we may all feel this, is at all what is required in the days that follow. We need to get our society back.

    People are naturally gregarious. To ask them not be is an insult to humanity. To condemn them for wanting to be together is medieval. No matter what the cause. Humanity must go on, yes we must protect the vulnerable, to do otherwise would be barbaric. But society in general must go on, and those who want to interact safely must be entitled to go on with their lives, and seize the day.

    We face tough times. That requires tough people, willing to get along with one another. So let’s just drop the moaning about hurt feelings at parties where one wears a mask and is mocked. You are better than this.

    1. There’s kind of a lot to unpack in what you said. I recently moved with my family to Sweden. All of the friends I have here are through my wife. She had one friend whom test positive and didn’t isolate or wear a mask, her rationalization was that she did t have any contact with older at risk people. I believe her response was a product of official messaging, an attitude of indifference towards other, and I think it was wrong. This isn’t an issue of naturally gregarious people having the right to “safely” socialize and not calling each other names. This is a matter of what we are all will to do for the people we love and don’t love to keep them safe from a disease that is not well understood and does not only effect the old. Also why do waves in other places disprove their methods but Swedish waves don’t disprove Swedish methods.

  4. Great article (and I’m glad to finally see some comment activity)!

    The point about reevaluating friendships is really important, especially considering how difficult it is to meet new people at this time. One empathetic way to look at the situation is that we all deal with trauma (and death) differently. I’m accommodating of all my friend’s approaches. While I’ve used the “When in Sweden…” approach, I’m also critical of the Public Health Authority’s response, even more so now that they’ve backtracked.

    I really think Anders Tegnell should step down. Maybe then people will start following the new “RECOMMENDATIONS”. He made a mistake with the first 6 months of the pandemic response. Personally, I would have followed his predecessor’s emailed advice or followed Korea and Japan’s approaches.
    Good luck with the 4th and 5th wave, team Sweden.

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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.