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‘People don’t want to hear about it’: how the pandemic shaped Sweden’s politics

Miranda Bryant in Stockholm
Monday September 5, 2022

Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, at a football training session for girls last month in Linköping, Sweden. Photograph: Jeppe Gustafsson/Rex/Shutterstock

In the Stockholm neighbourhood of Tensta, the pandemic has left many feeling hopeless and disenfranchised, says Fatuma Mohamed.

While much of Sweden – including politicians – appear to have forgotten all about Covid, the health communicator and longtime resident said that many in the area are still grappling with its impact.

Although people had been advised by authorities to work from home, many in Tensta, with its high refugee population, had no choice but to go out because of the nature of their jobs.

“They didn’t have any possibility to stay at home,” said Mohamed, sitting outside Tensta Konsthall, a contemporary arts centre, where people were arriving for a coffee meet-up.

Two and a half years after the introduction of the “Swedish strategy”– the Scandinavian country’s divergent pandemic response, which kept schools open and eschewed lockdowns – the results are mixed.

Mental health and children’s learning appear to have been less affected than they might have been, although 2.57m infections were recorded in the population of just over 10 million and in excess of 19,900 died, with stark inequality exposed in the process.

In comparison, Norway, with a little over half Sweden’s population, has had 1.46m cases and nearly 4,000 deaths; while Finland, also with just over half Sweden’s population, has had 1.27m cases and nearly 5,700 deaths.

An independent commission into the handling of the pandemic, the findings of which were published earlier this year, found that while the choice of path for disease prevention and control was “fundamentally correct”, the measures “were too few and should have come sooner”. The government, it said, should have taken control of all aspects of crisis management from the start and had relied too heavily on its public health agency, Folkhälsomyndigheten.

And yet, as Sweden prepares to go to the polls on 11 September, in the first election since these life or death decisions were made, it is almost as if Covid never happened. Left- and right-leaning party leaders, who are in a tight race, are focusing on crime, immigration and energy prices but not Covid.

For many, this has highlighted the gulf between the living conditions of Sweden’s different communities. In Tensta, some groups of up to 10 people live in two-room flats, said Mohamed, 43, who has three daughters,

“But the ‘Swedish’,” she said, miming inverted commas with her hands, “they live, maybe two or three people in eight, seven or four rooms, maybe. So they had the opportunity to have social distance.

“It is not just a health problem,” she added. “This is a political problem.” Services such as banks, dentists and job centres had vanished from the area, she claimed, and many people were unemployed, splitting society into “parallel communities”.

“It’s not good to have different lives in the same country. We are all the same people, we are all Swedish citizens, so we should have the same opportunity.”

Experiences of the pandemic have deepened distrust of government and social services, she said. Mohamed isn’t sure how this will affect people’s votes in the election, but the rightwing anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats have become the second biggest party in the polls after Magdalena Andersson’s incumbent Social Democrats. The left, centre and green parties are saying the right things, Mohamed said, but she will be watching to see whether their words are turned into action.

“I don’t think the people who live in this area have any trust for any party because we don’t have a good life,” she said. “Definitely, they don’t like to vote Sweden Democrats but, for the other parties, interest is not high because they think it’s the same: ‘If I vote or not vote, the result will be the same.’ Most don’t have jobs, we live cramped, we don’t have the same opportunities.”

Another Tensta resident, Liban Warsame, whose 19-year-old son was murdered in December 2020, said most people in the area felt left out of Swedish society, and that the pandemic had had a huge impact on the community. “Many older people from Somalia died because of the pandemic. In the election, we’re going to vote and we’re going to take our responsibility,” he said.

Health experts say they are disappointed by the lack of attention the pandemic is receiving and fear that lessons will not be learned from the vulnerabilities it exposed in Swedish society, especially its impact on immigrants and the elderly. Göran Stiernstedt, a member of Sweden’s coronavirus commission and associate professor of infectious disease at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, said: “It really exposed that the risk for people born outside Europe was much greater than those born in Sweden.” The impact on the elderly was also severe, he added, including lack of medical care in nursing homes and staff left alone with no doctors.

“It’s not only a problem in the pandemic, it’s a problem also in daily life,” he said. Nothing had been done to fix the issue, he felt, despite investigations. “You could expect that this would have been a great thing now in the election, but you don’t hear a single word about that.”

The fact that the Corona Commission’s report was published the day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not help it gain momentum, but Stiernstedt believes there is also a psychological explanation for the silence on Covid’s impact. “People don’t want to hear about it. They want to live their normal life. And when you walk today, it’s like 2019, actually, and that’s natural. I think it’s related to human nature.”

While Emma Frans, a researcher and epidemiologist at Karolinska Institute, is surprised by the silence around Covid in the election, she said: “People have had thoughts about how do we look at our elderly. And also maybe understanding how this type of health crisis affects people differently depending on who they are, their position in society and what means they have.”

The pandemic had also highlighted “outdated” perceptions of what a “traditional Swedish home” looked like, she said. “And there were problems with not getting information out to people who are not speaking or reading in Swedish.”

Through the public health agency, which was responsible for responding to the pandemic, politicians had had a “free pass” when it came to Covid deaths, said Frans. The government “hid” behind Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s former state epidemiologist, she added.

At the Stockholm HQ of Folkhälsomyndigheten, Karin Tegmark Wisell, who became its head last November, stands by most of the major decisions made during the pandemic – including keeping schools open and not making face masks mandatory. But, she said, Covid had highlighted ongoing health inequalities, especially among immigrants, more of whom ended up in intensive care.

These problems, she said, could not be solved by a public health agency alone and needed government intervention; she said she would like to see the matter addressed more in the election. “From my perspective, that is the most important issue,” she said.

Amineh Kakabaveh, an independent politician who has played a pivotal role in the power balance of the current government, said parties weren’t criticising the pandemic response because they were part of the decision-making process. “Each of them had opportunity to say something, to do something – that is why it is passed, even if it is not over. But on class, society and employment, a lot of people still don’t feel good psychologically.”


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