In April, just as Sweden was beginning to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, I photographed a benefit concert at my favorite music hall, Pustervik, in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city. Band after band played to a virtually empty theater as the performance was livestreamed via a local newspaper’s website to audiences across the world.
Everyone followed government rules: Fewer than 50 people were present, and bottles of hand sanitizer were everywhere. After the last note was played, the 30 or so symptom-free musicians, staff, and crew gathered on stage for a group photo. The moment seemed to capture the essence of how people in Sweden are treating the pandemic: If you don’t feel sick, you’re free to live your normal life.
While other countries have enacted strict lockdowns to slow the pace of COVID-19, in Sweden, daily life for some appears to be going on as usual. Restaurants, bars, salons, gyms, and shops are open. Soccer teams train in parks. High schools and universities are closed, but preschools and elementary schools are in session. Instead of quarantines, the government has issued social distancing guidelines, including limiting large gatherings and encouraging people to stay home if they can. In a country the size of California with a population of 10 million, social distancing comes naturally.
In its approach to the coronavirus pandemic, the Swedish government is doing something few other countries are: It’s relying on individual responsibility to flatten the curve. The result could be that we gradually build herd immunity; at the end of April, officials estimated that Stockholm was just a few weeks from achieving that status based on rapid antibody testing. But the World Health Organization has warned that this particular brand of tests cannot measure immunity.
“You give [people] the option to do what is best in their lives,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said last month. “That works very well, according to our experience.”
As of May 4, 2,769 people in Sweden have died from COVID-19, a majority of the victims senior citizens. Gothenburg—a city of more than half a million people on Sweden’s west coast—has reported 2,720 cases and 227 deaths. The capital of Stockholm has many more cases. The countrywide death rate is 27 per 100,000 people—the highest per capita in all of Scandinavia. And the numbers could be higher: data is missing from nursing homes, which have been particularly hard hit.
Right now, the world is watching Sweden. At times, it feels like we’re living in the film, The Truman Show, with outsiders regarding us as if we were a social experiment. Needing a reality check, I spent a week traveling across Gothenburg to see how people from different backgrounds are dealing with the pandemic. I discovered that not all Swedes are living their lives like normal. Plenty of people are afraid, worried, and uncertain about the future.
Gothenburg, up close
My journey began on Brännö, an island off the west coast of Gothenburg, where I met Ann Kathrin Görisch, a freelance illustrator. She told me she was nervous about the lack of restrictions in the country and that almost no one wears masks. I’ve noticed the same thing. Weeks ago, I started a tally of people wearing face masks—and so far, I’ve counted just 45. It could be because people in Sweden are unaccustomed to seeing masks, and that they’re not readily available to the general public at the moment. “People trust the government,” Görisch said. “So those who don’t have symptoms live normally.”
A few days after my visit to Brännö, I rode the tram, Gothenburg’s public streetcar system, to the city center. Armed with hand sanitizer, I practiced social distancing; my fellow riders did, too, as if out of habit. Outside, I saw tram workers ensuring that cars weren’t getting too full along the busiest lines.
At city center, I stopped into Saluhallen, the city’s biggest meat and fish market. It was packed with shoppers; no one was practicing social distancing, not even a little. I couldn’t help but think about Wuhan’s wet market, identified as the source of the coronavirus outbreak in China.
As I made my way back to the tram, lagom är bäst sprang to my mind. The Swedish phrase roughly translates to “just enough is best.” I think that’s what people want: They don’t want to get infected, but they don’t want to sacrifice too much either.
Life on the other side of town
Back on the tram, as we sped east along line 11, I watched the scenery change: boarded-up stores, emptier streets, with the occasional outdoor restaurant full of diners. The farther I traveled, the more people I saw wearing masks and trying to practice social distancing.
Life is markedly different on the west and east ends of this tram line. On the west end. people have jobs that allow them to work from home. If they lose their jobs, they can rely on the government to help pay their salaries.
On the east end, life is more uncertain. There are more multigenerational families living in small apartments. Many of them staff grocery stores, nursing homes, or public transit—working from home is impossible. People here express more fear of the virus.
Residents in these diverse neighborhoods report that—without clear, decisive guidelines from the Swedish government—they are taking advice from overseas relatives who say lockdown measures in their countries have worked. When they’re not at their jobs, these residents say they try to self-quarantine, but that’s impacting local businesses.
In the Bergsjön neighborhood, I visited Lul Ali, the owner of a clothing and accessory store. She told me that in the past two weeks she’s lost 80 percent of her customers and is now facing the hard decision of laying off her employees. “Currently I don’t even know how to pay the rent,” she said. “I wish there was more help for small businesses from the government.”
Businesses in central Gothenburg share Ali’s concern. Normally, restaurants and bars in a popular nightlife zone there would buzz with patrons every day of the week. On a recent Thursday night, I found a subdued scene. Fewer people are going out in general because of the virus. And now the government is requiring all patrons in restaurants and bars to be seated (rather than lingering at the bar), which further chips away at revenue. Some business owners say that instead of this dramatically reduced traffic, they’d rather have a shutdown so they can get government aid to pay the bills.
The Swedish government and employers are paying at least 90 percent of salaries for those who’ve been temporarily laid off or had their hours reduced due to the market slowdown. But because there’s no shutdown, small businesses like Ali’s can’t easily get government support if they close.
Hitting close to home
In western and central Gothenburg, it appears that people are more afraid of economic failure than of death from the virus. But I don’t think people realize how scary the coronavirus is until a case hits close to home. My colleagues experienced that when two Swedish photographers recently died from COVID-19. People around me suddenly changed their view about the virus and started to take more precautions.
In contrast, those on the front lines of the pandemic know the dangers far too well. I went to see this for myself at Eastern Hospital, one of Gothenburg’s two hospitals, which has been converted into a coronavirus center. Before speaking to anyone, I washed my hands; while there, I maintained distance from others, and tried not to touch anything.
Inside the hospital, I spoke with nurse Viktoria Silander. She’s been administering tests to patients with COVID-19 symptoms, and said she’s frustrated by seeing people not take the virus seriously. It’s been difficult convincing her teenage children to follow guidelines on social distancing, Siljander said—until a family friend got sick. “You quickly see how bad it can get,” she said. “Sometimes this pandemic feels a bit like a test, both for us and the next generation, to see how much we can handle. So next time we are even better prepared.”
Time for more restrictions?
On my journey across Gothenburg, I met people who seem to be taking the pandemic in stride and others who are genuinely afraid. On average, what I heard most often was that people would like to see more restrictions—or just get more clarity on current guidelines.
For example, there’s a stated ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. That rule applies to a drive-in cinema on an enormous pier where there’d be much more space between people—but not to a tiny bar which would still be crowded with fewer people. Restaurants have been allowed to seat many more than 50 people, but must keep tables arm’s length apart. Some restaurants in Stockholm have been shut down for violating that rule. But it might make more sense for the government to have stricter and more specific regulations, like requiring eateries to put away half the tables and then compensating them for the lost business.
Personally, I think there will be more restrictions in the near future, but I have a hard time imagining a complete lockdown. Swedes, who are too accustomed to their freedom, would protest. I don’t believe in a full lockdown; I think social distancing works to slow things down and flatten the curve. But it’s important to keep the economy rolling without risking more lives, and I know it can seem impossible to do both.
“There are a few critical times in life when you must make sacrifices, not just for your own sake, but also for those around you, for your fellow human beings, and for our country,” said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, in a national address on March 22.
The sacrifices we’ve been asked to make so far have been small, compared to other countries. If you ask Swedish people, they’ll insist that they’re social distancing. In downtown Gothenburg, the hub of our city’s social scene, what that really means is that people are hanging out but not hugging each other. By contrast, my sister, who lives in Munich, can’t even go on a walk with two friends.
Right now, I could join the 60 people sitting in the plaza outside my apartment. I choose not to. I feel grateful that I can move around, but I don’t want to abuse my freedom.
Nora Lorek is a contributing photographer at National Geographic who focuses on migration, culture, and human rights in Europe and East Africa. Born in Germany, she has lived in Sweden half her life. Nora is the co-founder of the Milaya Project, a Uganda-based NGO.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of per capita deaths in Sweden compared to other countries in Scandinavia (an earlier version included Ireland), and a clarification on “herd immunity” by the World Health Organization.