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Sarah Habershon at her apartment. Photo: supplied
Sarah Habershon at her apartment. Photo: supplied

SocietyApril 22, 2020

Another world: A New Zealander in Sweden on contrasting Covid-19 plans

Sarah Habershon at her apartment. Photo: supplied
Sarah Habershon at her apartment. Photo: supplied

I can’t deny that it’s lovely to be able to go almost wherever I want. But would I want my grandmother to be here? My mum and dad? Sarah Habershon on life in a country pursuing a herd-immunity strategy.

I live on the first floor of a converted water tower atop the tallest hill in Gothenburg city, Sweden. My apartment is shaped like a mandarin wedge, and I live in it alone. The viewing deck on my roof is the highest point in the city. From up there I can see the sun reflecting off the sea at the mouth of the Göta river.

I know that if I were to be confined to this tower, that view would be the saving of me; a way to extend my focal length beyond the four walls of my hamster cage in the sky, and the screens through which I’m watching the alternate universe south of Skåne grind to a halt. But I am not confined to my tower, because Sweden hasn’t gone into lockdown. My university course may have moved online, but schools, bars, restaurants, and gyms are all open for business and there are no restrictions on leaving the house or going on outdoor expeditions. Data from Google’s mobility reports make clear how significant the difference is between the New Zealand and Swedish experience of the corona times.

New Zealand is blue and Sweden yellow

“Aren’t you glad to be in Sweden right now?” a classmate asked me last week when I popped over for a beer and small dose of human company. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Since the university closed, and my circle of fellow international students were hurriedly repatriated to their home countries, I’ve been living more and more in my social media world, which is mostly populated by friends climbing the walls in lockdown back home in New Zealand. It feels like a cultural chasm; one foot in lockdown, the other at a crossroads.

On the days that I venture out to the nature reserve for a run, or down to the supermarket at a responsible, off-peak hour to stock up on a week’s worth of produce, I am greeted by jarring scenes of normalcy. At home in New Zealand, my friends are Zooming one another from their living-room blanket forts, sharing images of dystopian, socially distanced supermarket queues, and posting postponement photoshoots in their wedding gowns from gardens empty of guests. Here in Sweden, people are playing football in the park. A sign on the tram recommends that those over 70 stay at home, and reminds me to wash my hands. At the pub, terrace licences have been issued early so that customers may sit outside; no one is allowed to linger at the bar. “Aren’t you glad to be in Sweden right now?” a new acquaintance at my table outside Danske asked me yesterday, brandishing a cold pint at the blue sky. Again, I wasn’t sure how to answer.

In truth, it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m glad to be in Sweden – at this stage, I have little choice. Unlike my classmates, when the travel restrictions began I decided to stay the course and remain here, unable to face the disruption of moving countries again, and trying to establish myself in another new city in the middle of a pandemic. I have no home to return to that doesn’t involve imposing on a loved one’s hospitality for what could potentially be a very long period. Staying put seemed to be the safer option, at the time. Now that airports are shuttered, I have no realistic alternative but to remain here as the death toll climbs past 1,500 and state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell starts to look a little green around the gills.

I can’t deny that it’s lovely to be able to go outside whenever I want, to enjoy the spring sunshine after the long, dark months of winter, and to treat myself to a takeaway coffee every now and then. In my bubble of one, from which I’m unable to infect any of my now-departed friends, I console myself that it’s OK for me to be behaving this way because even if I catch it there is no one left in my life for me to spread the virus to. Even though my own social movement falls far, far within the limits of what the Swedish state has asked of me, I still feel ashamed sometimes that I am not upholding the New Zealand standard. Am I glad to be in Sweden? I can’t decide.

But would I want my grandmother to be here? No. Would I be OK with my mum and dad, now in their 60s, shopping in a supermarket full of potentially lethal disease vectors? No. Would I want the parents of my immunocompromised godson to have to catch a crowded Gothenburg tram to the pharmacy? No. If the people I love lived here with me, would I be angry with the state for leaving them at the mercy of the public? Undoubtedly.

It’s not as though Sweden is entirely ignoring the Covid crisis – mass gatherings have ceased, and many people, including myself, are working and studying from home. But measures are largely voluntary, and when I ride my longboard through Olivedal it really could be any sunny spring day. In my other world – the world where my friends, colleagues, and family live – I’m detecting a rising tide of cabin fever, fraying nerves, and declining mental health. Lockdown is hard. In my own free-range isolation I feel anxious for my people back home, and relieved that they are safe from a horrible, lonely fate, hooked up to a respirator with no visitors to hold their hand or say goodbye.

The few Swedes that I’ve spoken to are all of the opinion that the rest of the world has gone a bit mad. Back at home my friends are overwhelmingly in favour of the government’s zero-tolerance policy towards avoidable death and bereavement. What’s interesting to me, torn as I am between the two worlds, is how both here and there, the majority seem to believe that the approach their society is taking is the right one. For myself, I am doing my best to withhold judgement, while still feeling prouder than ever to be a New Zealander.

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