Part Two: On how immigrants were blamed for driving the pandemic in the Kingdom of Sweden, and pseudo-scientific racism
Twitter made me write this article. After I published the first article of the COVID-1984 series featuring what I called a gallery of horrors (read: questionable merch and tattoos dedicated to the architect of the Swedish strategy), I decided to continue this project in which I recount what has gone wrong in Sweden since March 2020. My credentials are, mainly, being a foreign resident that has lived throughout the pandemic in the Kingdom of Sweden. A pretty traumatized one. I asked a friend for feedbacks regarding the first article of this series. “Very well written, and interesting” — she said — “maybe just a little bit too much of pathos?”.
Pathos: the power of a person, situation, piece of writing, or work of art to cause feelings of sadness, especially because people feel sympathy.
I would never use the word ‘traumatized’ lightly. I have been traumatized in my life on several occasions — but honestly, not even having a stalker was comparable to the hell we’ve been through in the past year or so. As you may already know, Sweden chose a strategy that was unique in the whole world. Other countries may have tried to follow its steps but then changed their approach sooner or later. But not Sweden.
To add salt to the injury, something extraordinary happened: abroad, a mix of Trumpists, far-right parties, no-vax, and COVID-deniers were asking their governments to “be like Sweden”, where being like Sweden should be read as to be anti-lockdown, anti-mask and pro-herd immunity. On the other hand, many people in Sweden started to show extreme nationalistic attitudes, calling everyone that criticized the strategy or demanded a more scientific approach ‘threat to democracy’ and ‘nazis’. If one happened to be a foreigner and an open critic — maybe writing about their concerns in English, God forbid! — they could even be accused of being ‘suspicious’, or even ‘agents of a foreign power’. I know of people blocked on all social media (including LinkedIn) by colleagues just for expressing opinions other than blind trust in the authorities.
You can imagine how heartbreaking this situation has been for those who love this country, moved here with the hope of growing roots and planned or already had a family, whose children speak Swedish as their first language. How could it get any worse? Well, not only Sweden would publicly bully your country, but also enter in a sort of frenzy that, for short of better (read: more politically correct) words, I will call pseudo-scientific racism.
Scientific racism: sometimes termed biological racism, it’s the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism (racial discrimination), racial inferiority, or racial superiority.
I am aware that this is a pretty strong term — but once you read this article until the end, you can tell me whether you agree or not. I am particularly interested in the racial superiority bit. Also, note that I wrote pseudo-scientific racism, and for a reason: scientific racism is a pseudoscience. However, in the current Swedish context, it assumes ever so meta characteristics, in the sense that there is not even an attempt at backing these beliefs, statements or policies with scientific data.
So here it comes, by popular demand, a compilation of all the times Swedish officials and public figures pretty much got away with saying things that would have at least cause some raised eyebrows abroad.
Anders Tegnell vs Italy (and China)
On March 11, Italian Embassy in Stockholm issued a very unusual press release calling out the Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. The reason was his statement that
The Swedish health system has much better prerogatives than those of Italy in managing the spread of the coronavirus infection
It is untrue since, as a matter of fact, “in Italy over 5000 beds in intensive care units (ICU), while thousands more would be available in case of need. Currently, only 10% of the infected need treatment in the ICU, using less than 6% of the available places. No one has so far contested the efficiency of the Italian National Health System in facing the challenge of the coronavirus infection”. The former Ambassador concluded by saying
The challenge against COVID-19 is not a football match, nor are opposing supporters hoping for the victory of their team in the stands: it is a common and epochal challenge to ensure the health of all, where the “best” are the thousands and thousands of doctors, nurses and health workers who in Italy are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
As far as I know, nor Tegnell or any other Swedish official ever apologized for just assuming that the Swedish healthcare would do better than the Italian one, just as the virus was quickly spreading in Northern Italy — where we have an expression for this type of behaviour: sparare sulla Croce Rossa (literally: shooting on the Red Cross).
At the end of May, the Italian Embassy was once again compelled to issue another press release, once again to rebut Anders Tegnell’s made-up statement according to which
In a modern and rich country like Sweden we should have better protected the elderly, referring to the situation at the time in China and Italy, both countries with fewer resources than Sweden to manage a pandemic. Sweden as a society could have managed the pandemic better
After listing some numbers related to Italy’s healthcare system and compare those with the Swedish equivalents (e.g. the number of hospital beds), the press release concluded
The losses have been many, too many, as well as the pain and suffering of the Italian nation. But the commitment of doctors, nurses and all health personnel was commendable, as were the responses of national and local authorities and the population. Today, like yesterday, we are proud to be Italian for having been able to react to an epochal challenge with the strength of our knowledge and with piety as a weapon. And everyone, outside Italy, should have only words of praise and solidarity for our country, for our people: especially when thinking thatwe have granted to others, including Sweden, that time that was denied to us by a mocker destiny [Italy was the first European country to detect cases of COVID-19, n/a]
Again, as far as I know, no apologies were issued. If there’s one thing that I learned in years of preparing for a diplomatic career (I eventually changed my career path) is that diplomacy is mainly made of people. Before you say ‘No shit, Sherlock!’, let me explain. While any public officials eventually have to back the interests of their country, when it comes to diplomacy (as in diplomatic practices), personal connections, friendships and likings probably count as much as one’s negotiation skills. Tegnell’s behaviour is not only unacceptable but also very strange, considering that the former Italian Ambassador gave me the impression of going out of his way in order to explain the Swedish strategy. However, Tegnell’s low blows relatively did not get a strong echo in Italy either — to this day, and I wonder if the fact that Giuseppe Conte’s partner being Swedish had any influence. [Giuseppe Conte’s partner is Olivia Paladino, daughter of Swedish actress and singer Ewa Aulin, n/a] Or, as a person familiar with FoHM’s dynamics hinted, Tegnell was aware that the Italian Ambassador was soon to return to Italy and a new Ambassador installed and thought it was worth trying to throw him under the bus in the face of otherwise an amicable relationship.
The story got even more diplomatically embarrassing. After I translated and published part of an email I was sent by the Italian Ambassador, in which he described a meeting he attended with the Deputy state epidemiologist Anders Wallensten, I received this response through journalist Emanuel Karlsten on Twitter [the original Tweet seems to have been deleted]: “I spoke to Anders [Wallensten, NA] and this is not a quote from him. He does not recognize that he would have said in this way as described. It is an interpretation someone made. WE can state that as a quote it is not true.”. So, after FoHM releases a statement through an independent journalist, who shared it via Twitter the hint that an EU Ambassador is allegedly lying, I had to refresh the collective memory by referring to this video from FoHM’s press conference of April, 23rd, in which Anders Wallensten says what was reported by the Italian Ambassador who was accused (again: via an independent journalist on Twitter) of stating untrue quotes. I quote, “nackdelen med en lockdown helt är att det inte blir så mycket smittspridning […]”; in English: “a bad thing with a lockdown is that there is not much of a spread of infection”. However, I am unsure whether the Italian Embassy was notified; personally, I found this last interaction so unprofessional (before undiplomatic) that I did not bother informing the Embassy.
I remember when a great deal was made out of the “six Somalis from Järva” that were among the first victims of the new coronavirus.
Dagens Nyheter, one of the leading Swedish news outlets, wrote that “the Swedish Somalis were blamed for their own death”. Truer words have never been written. The case of the Somali victims from Järva (a district that is part of Solna municipality, just outside Stockholm) started the narrative according to which immigrants would be more prone to drive and perish from the new coronavirus, implying that this would be due to “cultural reasons” at best.
The Swedish Somalis were blamed for their own death — Dagens Nyheter
One of the most telling examples is this statement from Anders Tegnell, who told the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Health Policy Center that
Sweden has a bigger immigrant community than many realize, but the integration of those groups needs to be examined. Many live in cramped conditions or work in conditions that make it difficult to stay home while sick. So for socio-economic reasons, immigrants are overrepresented in the pandemic. I would say it has not been discussed in Sweden enough yet
I hope that I do not need to explain while othering immigrants communities while at the same time represent them as monoliths is problematic. Just look at one response to this Tweet, an example of the worst racist rhetoric and speculations:
Blacks have big noses made to handle heat, and also large mouths, often constantly open ( somalis at least). Not the best in cold Sweden as they draw in and blow out lots of aerosols when breathing.
On December 3 2020 Anders Tegnell said on national television (SVT Agenda) that neighbouring countries Norway and Finland had fewer cases than Sweden because they had fewer immigrants driving the infection. I quote:
[Norway and Finland] are countries with relatively sparse populations, small populations, small groups of immigrants who have been a driving factor in many countries
A couple of days later, Anders Tegnell once again blames immigrants for the spread of infection in Sweden, by saying to Norwegian media that
Possibly, one explanation is also that we have.. I mean.. 20–25% of Swedish population are migrants that came to Sweden quite recently
Stefan Löfven, the Swedish Prime Minister, also hinted that immigrants could be at fault when it comes to driving the infection in Sweden. The Prime Minister told Dagens Nyheter:
We have a responsibility to handle a pandemic situation, we lead with a strategy that we have adopted. It is about reducing the spread, mitigating the effects on the economy and entrepreneurs. We have made about 100 regulations and a number of government directives, he says. — We have a strategy, we follow it, we do not yet really know how it is that countries that are close to each other have such a different spread of the infection, we do not yet have that answer. He points to Spain and Portugal, which are close to each other, but where the situation still differs greatly. In Sweden, it may be because there is a different travel pattern, more people have relatives in other countries, but points out that there are no secure.
To some, this seemed like echoing what Karin Tegmark Wisell (head and chief physician at the Swedish Public Health Agency’s department for microbiology) said on December 11 2020. During a press conference, Tegnmark Wisell stated that the problem is that
when you travel and visit in your home countries, then you socialize in a different way”
Blaming immigrants for the spread of infection seems to be a common theme in Sweden. I am aware that other countries expressed similar xenophobic and racist sentiments. However, often they referred to waves of newcomers rather than foreign-born residents and frontline healthcare workers. On June 18 2020, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ann Linde was interviewed by the German public state-owned international broadcaster DW. In this interview, it was said, among other untrue things (I recommend to look at the comments, which are not disabled unlike often is the case in Sweden), that
the regional organizations for regional and local authorities stated that there was more than 40% of those who were employed that didn’t have enough knowledge of basical hygiene care; for example how you wash your hand and so on and so forth. That is now being taken care of with 140.000 having got an education” (minute mark 7:18).
Anyone familiar with the Swedish care home industry knows that many foreigners are employed in this industry, and it is to them that Minister Linde is referring to.
Johan Giesecke, also blamed the high numbers of deaths in retirement homes on the immigrant workforce. In a famous UnHerd interview (March 2020), he said (quoting from min 17:49)
Sweden failed. We failed. We were not on our toes at all to really shield the old people. We should have banned visitors earlier and many of the people working in retirement homes are from other countries, they’re refugees or asylum seekers in Sweden; their Swedish may not be perfect and may not always be understanding information that is spread to the population…”
Once again: I am a foreign resident, and for me, it was very difficult to find information in English, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the problem was not understanding the information, but rather the information per se: for example, the official guidelines never imposed the use of masks, not even in retirement homes or hospitals — they were often forbidden; moreover, people with sick family members were encouraged to go to work or school if asymptomatic. The focus has always been on hand hygiene, and to date, the Public Health Authority denies that COVID-19 is airborne. I can assure you that if the virus was brought into retirement homes by workers, it was not due to their cultural habits, “lack of basic hygiene”, or unwashed hands, but rather because they were not allowed to wear a mask in the workplace.
Indeed, a study has shown a 220% excess mortality in Sweden in the age group 40–64 among Swedish residents born in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. However, the main factors are not cultural differences or lower proficiency when it comes to the Swedish language, but rather the socio-economic status, type of occupation and other conditions existing prior to the pandemic.
The Swedish strategy appears to have had race and socioeconomic class-dependent effects on society, disproportionately affecting non-white immigrants from low- to middle-income countries. […] non-white immigrants are significantly more likely to die from COVID-19 than any other group in Sweden. Linking this back to herd immunity, working-class immigrants are overrepresented in the most essential professions, such as domestic work, service work, nurses, teachers, and other hospital staff and therefore they have been subjected to the highest risk levels of infection. Although this is currently a problem in virtually every society across the world, it is made strikingly obvious in Sweden due to herd immunity policies which have inhibited all and any possibilities of protection from the virus. Whilst lockdown may be a frustrating experience, it undoubtedly has provided an additional layer of protection for the most highly exposed and therefore the most at-risk individuals.
On July 1 2020, Minister Linde defined ‘regrettable’ the decision of the Greek Government not to allow direct flights from Sweden. The reason? ‘Uncertainty and concern for travellers who have planned to travel from Sweden to Greece this summer’. I mean, during a global pandemic, the real victims are indeed the tourists of an anti-mask country that suddenly cannot go on holidays via a direct flight.
As of March 2021, people of Swedish citizenship and long-term foreign residents are exempted from presenting a negative COVID-19 test, unlike tourists and visitors (exceptions apply). Swedish citizens residing abroad are also exempted from presenting a negative test upon entry. This makes little sense if we imagine an aeroplane incoming from abroad. Swedish citizenship, but lived abroad for decades? No need to present the test. Long-term resident coming together with a family member that is not a long-term resident? The latter needs the test. The first doesn’t. A foreign friend of mine, currently carrying her Swedish boyfriend’s baby, jokingly wondered if she needs to present a test or if carrying a Swedish child (for whatever that means) constitutes ground for exemption.
And as the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire in Europe, Anders Tegnell confidently asserts that it will not necessarily as contagious in Sweden. Because we do not know if that is the case, but it is assumed that Sweden will fare better against the new variant. Because, why not.
I think these examples clearly show a scientific racist mindset. Otherwise, how come differences are made at the border according to one’s citizenship? A person could have Swedish citizenship and yet haven’t been in the country in decades. What makes them special? The Swedish-ness? Or, again: why scientific consensus doesn’t apply within Swedish borders? Masks are not part of “our culture” (they are an ‘Asian’ courtesy measure, as stated by a media darling often called as an ‘expert’ to comment on basically anything, from the effectiveness of masks to the very existence of Jesus)
Mouthguards have no effect. They lie in front and the air moves freely to the side. They are designed for operations, so that things do not fall from the mouths of the operating staff into the surgical wound. They have no effect whatsoever to filter the air. They are widely used in Asia as a courtesy measure when one is infected. But it has no effect, so it is pointless to hoard them. Then there are real breathing masks that you have in healthcare. It is important for them not to go and steal and sell on the black market. They have no effect on people outside.
The main narrative that has been created in Sweden during the pandemic is that the coronavirus essentially is a problem created by others or concern for others. There is little responsibility from the Public Health Authority, the Government, the press. Rather, the virus has been driven by immigrants and foreign-born Swedes through cultural practice because of their failure to understand recommendations and guidelines. This narrative of COVID-19 as a problem of others has also been widely spread by the state media. One of the most infamous examples is the (in)famous ‘scoop’ by SVT Nyheter, which attributed ‘millions of deaths’ worldwide to various restrictions and used the image of an unnamed African child as a prop to support this statement.[Note: it has been claimed that there is a lack of basis for such a spectacular statement]
As many expats and foreign residents (myself included) can assure you, it is clear that these narratives planted roots in the imagination of many Swedish people. An example was reported in The Local Sweden, in an article regarding the abuse endured by foreign residents wearing face masks:
As soon as she saw me she looked annoyed, then she came and shouted something in Swedish I couldn’t understand. When I said I didn’t speak Swedish, she got out her phone and showed me a collection of images of starving children wearing face masks and symbols of communism, which was on a Facebook page. She kept speaking Swedish in an aggressive manner […]
The cashier of a bakery I used to go to once took my hands in theirs and told me that they were so “grateful that I was safe in Sweden and not in Italy”. This happened more or less at the same time in which the State Epidemiologist was claiming that the pandemic would be better managed in a rich country like Sweden, which can count on much more resources compared to Italy and China.
I wonder how many, in Sweden and abroad, hold or held similar convictions? And when will we be able to assess the real implications?
In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. (George Orwell, 1984)