Sweden has forged its own path when it comes to responding to the coronavirus pandemic. As Swedes generally put faith in their government, the country is relying on a trust-based strategy that leaves compliance in the individual’s hands. Shops, restaurants, and some cultural institutions remain open—taking distancing and capacity into account. Elementary and preschool students are still attending school, while high school and university students have segued to online learning. The goal, says leading state epidemiologist and stable genius Dr. Anders Tegnell, is to not overwhelm the health care system and to allow people “to keep a reasonably normal life.” In the absence of a vaccine, Tegnell and his colleagues are focused, he says, on long-term solutions that might seemingly help the country (population 10.23 million) circumnavigate the perilous transition from lockdown to reopening.
As of this week, Sweden has recorded 30,800 confirmed COVID-19 cases and roughly 3,745 deaths.
Providing Vogue with a first-person account of life in Stockholm at the moment is Ika Johannesson, the anchor for culture news on Swedish television SVT (Swedish Public Television). With Vejde Gustafsson, she cofounded and edited the indie culture magazine Sex from 2002 to 2007. More recently she coauthored Blood, Fire, Death: The Swedish Metal Story with Jon Jefferson Klingberg. Here, the mother of two reflects on the mask question, changing public opinion, and the loss of communal cultural moments, like the now canceled Judas Priest concert that was to be held in an outdoor quarry in Dalhalla and be the highlight of Johannesson’s summer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
I’m the anchor for the culture news on Swedish television. I haven’t been in quarantine because the way I work doesn’t allow me to, so I might be a little more numb to everything. I do go out to have dinner, but I don’t sit close to people. I recognize that the people that are home are the most scared, that quarantine also breeds fear—and fear can, of course, be a reasonable response. Sometimes when I’m in a good mood, I’m like, “What happens happens.” And if I’m in a more insecure mood, I’m crazy thinking I’m going to get sick and everyone’s going to die. It’s hard to find the middle ground.
The Public Health Agency of Sweden has been very open with the strategy being a gamble. What they’ve said from day one is: “We don’t know if this is the best way. We do not know.” I think had they been more sure, more people would have questioned the policy, but now people are really going back and forth about it. I see the numbers of new cases and the number of deaths going down a bit, the spread seems to be slowing down. Is that because of the strategy, or is it because of something else? I think people are still on the fence about that, and I am myself.
No one I know wears a mask. I don’t wear a mask because the message we’re given from the authorities here is that it isn’t very effective (which I kind of think is strange—of course it should have some effect since the virus spreads via droplets). But what they mean is that having a mask on your face makes you touch your face more and therefore can bring virus particles near your mouth, eyes, and nose. That’s the one part of it. The other is that it can give you a sense of false security and make you lax with other safety measures. This is a controversial thing.
There are people who do wear masks. I was just at Plantagen, a gardening store outside of Stockholm, getting plants for my balcony, and there were two older people wearing masks. I think the image of Sweden that some people have is that we totally don’t care. That’s not the case. There is no queue where you’re not two meters from each other. There are markings in every store. Some restaurants are being lax, but the government has also shut restaurants down. I used to go to concerts a lot, almost every week, and there’s this big gap in my soul at the moment. I miss being in a crowd, experiencing something together, and being swept away for a while.
No one hugs each other anymore. Sweden is a super-huggy population, but I can’t remember when I last hugged anyone, which is something I miss. You don’t shake hands at all; most people avoid each other in the streets. I know that foreign media likes showing crowded areas in Stockholm, and of course, that exists, but it’s more the other way around.
We’re such a small country, and I think the government strategy has made us come together. There’s been both good and bad press about us. Some people think that, yeah, it does seem like a good strategy, and then some people think that we’re just crazy or that we’re gambling with really high stakes. I think it’s resulted in some sort of patriotism. This feeling that we’re doing something that no one else is doing, which to many of us feels kind of strange, but we think that it might be the good way because that’s what the government says, and we trust the government, and then we stand with the government. It’s like trädgrensnationalism, tree-branch nationalism: If someone is critical and steps on the branch, the branch rebounds and slaps you in the face, like, no, we’re doing the right thing.
My parents, for example, are super quarantined. They’re like, “When are we ever going to be able to go out? Is this for the rest of our lives now?” They’re not counting on leaving the house for the rest of the year. Imagine the psychological damage that does to lonely people. Another major reason for not locking down totally is the damage for mental health, for domestic abuse, child abuse. The numbers for domestic abuse are skyrocketing, even though we’re not in total lockdown. If schools were closed, many kids wouldn’t get even one meal per day; I’m guessing that’s a huge thing in the States as well with so much poverty. It’s important to remember that the Public Health Agency is responsible for both the physical and mental health of the population, and their helicopter perspective has informed the entire strategy.
I’ve been very happy that the schools haven’t shut down. I have two kids—one 11-year-old, one 12-and-a-half-year-old—who are addicted to screens in a way that makes me...I don’t even have a strong enough word to describe how much I hate the screens and what they do to the kids. If they had been home this entire time, they would have been glued to them. They have been going to school, to karate, to Scouts.
It was strange in the beginning to snuggle with my kids, and yet I can’t hug a friend, and my kids have been with other people and other adults the entire day. But according to the Health Agency, it’s really seldom that kids spread the disease. But then you see some news coming from Belgium and Britain where a 13-year-old has died, where an 11-year-old has died. And now this news from the States that the virus can result in other sorts of syndromes within children. Of course, I read all that. So at night, I think about locking myself and my kids up and not letting them see anyone. And I get mad at myself for going to a dinner or going to Ikea. Nights are really bad; nights suck—especially when I’ve just separated from my boyfriend. Let me tell you, corona is a sucky time for separation.
Then when I wake up in the morning, the logical, very Swedish way of thinking comes back with the sunlight. “Yeah, well, if I’m just careful and responsible, this will all work out.” And I’d go crazy if I stayed at home. It’s a really weird thing to navigate.
Originally Appeared on Vogue