MADISON TOWNSHIP -- Sweden has made international news recently by declining to join numerous nations who have gone to a lockdown of citizens and businesses, limiting in-person contact to battle the spread of COVID-19.
The country does have some restrictions. Since March 24, people can no longer be served at the counter in cafés and restaurants as usual – service is provided directly at the table and tables are separated by some distance. Ski resorts remain open, but cable cars are closed. According to the Boston Globe, public gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned. Grade schools and daycare are still open. So are parks, restaurants, and stores. Swedish health officials have advised residents older than 70 to stay home.
The controversial philosophy is that Sweden is building herd immunity, which will better protect its citizens from a potential second wave of the virus, and also saving jobs and businesses while safeguarding the nation's economy.
So, Richland Source checked in with Swedish resident Maria Ansgariusson, who was an exchange student at Madison in the 1979-80 school year. She stayed with Madison teachers Joe and Karyne Carey and has maintained a strong relationship ever since, which includes visiting the United States frequently. That stance has created a stir among its Nordic neighbors, and across the globe.
We asked Ansgariusson what life is like in her native land. She lives in Kävlinge, with her husband Magnus Backstrom. The couple have two grown daughters who live outside the country, and a son who just returned home from college.
RICHLAND SOURCE: Can you tell us about your situation today in Sweden?
MARIA: Life is very different in Sweden nowdays.
We work from home. We order food on internet and have it delivered to our doorstep and yesterday we arranged our first birthday party on-line, a totally new experience!
Every day at 2 p.m. the national authorities and experts are releasing all COVID-19 statistics, general information and updates on recommendations. We can all follow how everything is progressing in regards to COVID-19 on a daily bases.
Before Easter the general recommendations were not to travel to friends and family. As a result the traveling patterns have changed dramatically.
I hope people are starting to realize we are in this together and need to help each other instead of only do what you want for yourself.
I don´t beleve any country can say for sure they are taking all the correct steps to reduce the damage of this virus, simply because we lack experience dealing with this one and have not been prepared for such a big impact.
RS: We hear reports that other Nordic countries are upset that Sweden isn't doing social distancing. Does that bother the Swedish people?
MARIA: Different countries have different approaches. I realize Sweden doesn't follow the same protocol as other countries. I understand our neighbour's concerns but we all need to do what we think is right.
Most Swedes are doing social distancing. Then there are those who don't think COVID-19 is worse than a regular flu … and some young people who think they are so strong they will only get cold symptoms from COVID-19 … there's the problem!
RS: How much does COVID-19 dominate your daily conversation?
MARIA: A lot! When talking to friends COVID-19 is the first thing we talk about.
Every morning I need to watch the latest news about COVID-19. In the area where I live there's not a big spread yet, but I follow the statistics closely. I want to be prepared.
RS: Can you explain the strategy of how herd immunity in Sweden?
MARIA: Herd immunity is reached when about 60% of the population is immune to a disease. With COVID-19 we can't let it spread like a regular flu or cold. It's too dangerous. It's my understanding we need to slow down the spread in order for the health care system to be able to do their job properly.
So far we are given recomendations how everyone can help slow down the spread of this virus. Most people apply this to their every day life routines whilst some are failing completely. It's difficult beeing a teenager and not seeing your friends for two weeks. It's difficult to ask a friend or neighbour to go to the grocery store for you. It's difficult to change routines. That's why we sometimes fail. But people in other countries fail too.
You probably wonder why Sweden is not in lock-down like many other countries. Personally I'm glad we are not, but it should include a mandatory responsibility to follow recommendations.
RS: Does Magnus have any thoughts on the COVID-19 epidemic?
MARIA: We have had the same philosophy for a long time – Social distancing. To shut down a whole society could be effective for a while, but what will happen the day you open up again? Do you think COVID-19 will be gone? Do you think a vaccine is here that fast? Will you have any companies and entrepreneurs left?
RS: Are your children outside of Sweden?
MARIA: Our oldest lives in San Francisco, California. Our second one lives in London, England and our youngest lived in a University dormatory nearby but he moved back home with us to stay safe.
RS: Are your children's situations different than yours as far as social distancing, etc.?
MARIA: Both in San Francisco and in London they are basically stuck at home, only allowed walks in the neighbourhood. In London they are allowed to be outside for an hour per day. I am so glad they have a balcony!
RS: Are there differences in American or Swedish culture that would lead to us approaching the COVID-19 epidemic differently?
MARIA: Difficult to say, Swedes prefer common decisions to being told what to do.
Americans have one President who updates people every day.
Swedes have a Prime Minister, a National Health Institute with power to act and legislative politicians monitoring the actions. AND we have a King (old fashioned, I know) who steps up and talk to the nation when it's needed. Information is more diversified prehaps.
Our Health Institute dictates quite a lot regarding COVID-19 in Sweden, not the politicians. Maybe this is the major difference between Sweden and other countries.
RS: Has COVID-19 changed the way you are living?
MARIA: Yes, a lot. We are scared every time we are outside the house. Even outside we don't want to bump into people. We always keep our sanitizer close by. When Magnus sneezes I cover my nose. One thing hasn't changed though, driving our cabriolet car. It still feels like total freedom driving around with it. Nowdays we bring our own pic-nic instead of stopping at a place by the road.
RS: How has COVID-19 impacted business?
MARIA: Everything has slowed down and meetings are digital. The process of turning your business digital has taken a lot of energy from regular business focus. But I'm impressed by how fast this trancition has been.
RS: Can you imagine being an exchange student in the U.S. with a Stay-at-Home order in place limiting your experience to staying at the home of a host family and no travel or interaction with other students?
MARIA: It would be a very different experience especially not being able to be with friends. It could, on the other hand, be interesting to view your own country through ”American eyes.”
RS: What's the biggest impact COVID-19 has had on you and your family?
MARIA: We can't travel anymore, I can't visit my parents, all our kids can't visit us. We celebrate birthdays on a screen, we don't dare go to restaurants or to the grocery store. We do look forward to spring and summer when we can be outside more and maybe see friends – at an arm's length or two.