Posted on April 24, 2020

The Hidden Flaw in Sweden’s Anti-Lockdown Strategy

Nathalie Rothschild, Foreign Policy, April 21, 2020

STOCKHOLM—Sweden quickly became an object of the world’s attention for its decision to forgo a government-mandated lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Instead the country chose to lean on its high-trust culture and tradition of citizens independently following authorities’ recommendations.

But there was one major overlooked problem with that approach—one that’s increasingly reflected in the country’s medical data: Sweden’s distinctive national culture and traditions, and the government’s efforts to amplify and support them, aren’t equally accessible to its increasingly diverse residents. The most segregated segments of the population are not as tuned in to the mainstream culture or to authorities’ messaging around the pandemic.

Sweden’s Public Health Agency recently conducted a survey, the results of which were published on April 14. It showed that a disproportionate number of immigrants, in particular from Somalia, Iraq, and Syria, were among the COVID-19 cases registered at Swedish hospitals. For instance, while Somali Swedes make up just over half a percent of the national population, so far they make up nearly 5 percent of hospitals’ confirmed cases.


“In the future, we’ll need proper research to figure out how this situation came about,” said Per Brinkemo, who worked as a journalist for 20 years before becoming involved with integration issues, working with a Somali community organization in the Rosengard suburb of Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city. He believes there is a general unwillingness among Swedish authorities to consider how cultural differences impact people’s behaviors.

After writing the book Between Clan and State: Somalis in Sweden in 2014, Brinkemo toured the country, holding seminars for bureaucrats and local politicians about its basic thesis, namely that Somalis’ and others’ integration has often been marked by a clash between “the extremely collectivist structures of the native culture and the hyperindividualism of Sweden.” But there is a strong aversion in Sweden for the government or authorities to differentiate between people of different ethnic backgrounds, Brinkemo said. “It’s a well-intentioned attitude but can prove dangerous.”


Many in Sweden’s immigrant-dense areas agree that there is a complex set of factors involved, with cultural differences being just one aspect. In the northern Stockholm suburb of Tensta, Somali-born Ahmed Abdirahman was among the first to note that the coronavirus was spreading in his community. “Many foreign-born Swedes live in segregated suburbs where up to 80 percent of residents have immigrant backgrounds,” Abdirahman said. “For instance, in Stockholm more than half of Somalis live in just a single district, so it’s not surprising that once the virus started spreading in that area, Somalis quickly became overrepresented in the statistics.” Abdirahman added: “There are also relatively high levels of ill health and household crowding in these suburbs, and multigenerational households are quite common due to low-income levels. In addition, the potential for exposure to the virus is high since many hold so-called low-skilled jobs, for instance as taxi drivers.”


{snip} However, the prevailing principle of public health in Sweden seems likely to remain “freedom under responsibility,” according to which as long as a majority takes individual responsibility for following recommendations, there is no need to rob everyone of basic liberties.