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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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For members


OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.