>>Thomas Erdbrink, The New York Times
Published: 2020-06-24 16:07:21 BdST
But this summer, there will not be any Swedish singers in the live broadcast event, nor will there be any Swedish fans in the audience, singing and clapping along. This year, Swedes are forbidden to enter Norway.
And Norway isn’t the only Scandinavian neighbor barring Swedes from visiting this summer. Denmark and Finland have also closed their borders to Swedes, fearing that they would bring new coronavirus infections with them.
While those countries went into strict lockdowns this spring, Sweden famously refused, and now has suffered roughly twice as many infections and five times as many deaths as the other three nations combined, according to figures compiled by The New York Times.
While reporting differences can make comparisons inexact, the overall trend is clear, as is Sweden’s new status as Scandinavia’s pariah state.
“We will miss the Swedes this year,” said Ole Evenrud, a Norwegian pop star who goes under the stage name “Ole i’Dole,” or Ole the Idol, and is a regular performer at the festival in Halden, a Norwegian border town. “But I’m OK with the borders being closed. We have been pretty clever about the way we handled corona.”
Swedish officials, including the architect of the country’s measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Anders Tegnell, are not amused. They say Swedes have been stigmatised by an international campaign to prove Sweden was wrong and warn their neighbors that they are going to be much more vulnerable if a second wave of the virus hits in the fall.
“We are really confident that our immunity is higher than any other Nordic country’s,” Tegnell said during a news conference last week. He added that while Sweden was not striving for herd immunity, the higher level of immunity “is contributing to lower numbers of patients needing hospitalisation, as well as fewer deaths per day.”
Tegnell also said that infections in Sweden “had peaked,” and were now falling, a trend reflected in The Times’ figures.
Experts in the other Scandinavian countries say the higher immunity levels have not been proven through rigorous testing, and that such talk misses a major point.
“When you see 5,000 deaths in Sweden and 230 in Norway, it is quite incredible,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and the former director of the World Health Organisation, during a digital lecture at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in May. “It will take a lot to even out this difference a year or two into the future.”
Tegnell had emerged this spring as something of a cult figure, widely admired for his determinedly maverick approach. But perhaps because of such differing outcomes, his star has dimmed lately. Confidence in Tegnell went from 69% in April to 60% on Monday, according to a poll done by the leading Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and Ipsos.
Long considered the lucky holders of one of the best passports for seamless global travel, Swedes now find themselves with few options for moving about the European Union. Most countries in the bloc have reopened their borders to member nations, but only France, Italy, Spain and Croatia are welcoming Swedes without restrictions.
In several countries, like the Netherlands and Cyprus, they are banned completely. Austria demands a health certificate. Greece makes Swedes quarantine for at least a week, even if they test negative for the coronavirus.
While the emergency laws and “strong travel advice” have upset many Swedes, nothing has been more painful than the behaviour of their neighbours, said Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister.
“It is sad and frustrating that regions on the borders were so easy to close,” said Linde. She pointed to southern Sweden, where coronavirus infections were much lower than in bordering Denmark. Nevertheless, she said, “suddenly there were border guards” on the bridge connecting the two countries.
“That will take time to heal, it was too harsh,” she added. “It is very difficult to understand. There were far more deaths in Copenhagen.”
The travel restrictions imposed by their immediate neighbours, Denmark, Finland and Norway, have exposed resentments and differences that usually are obscured by a Scandinavian sense of mutual identity and niceness.
Sweden is a sort of regional hegemon, and, its critics say, given to a certain arrogance and exceptionalism that can be grating.
At over 10 million, its population is almost double the size of any of its neighbours. Its economy, which is far more globally integrated than the others, includes successful brands like Volvo, Ikea and H&M, as well as the band ABBA. Sweden also has far more relaxed policies toward immigration.
A full quarter of all Swedes are now immigrants. Denmark, on the other hand, has been moving in the opposite direction, placing strict limits on immigration and demanding that foreigners assimilate.
“The different views on foreigners and crime have created a divide between Denmark and Sweden that’s become the deepest since the First World War,” said Jacob Nielsen, the editor-in-chief of Altinget.dk, a political website with offices in both Denmark and Sweden.
He said that Denmark has become a country where everything is constantly being discussed. “There is a strong belief in Denmark of the necessity of a strong debate culture as part of freedom of expression and development of policy,” he said.
Sweden, by contrast, is “a very consensus-oriented culture. They reach a common standpoint before they saddle up and ride anywhere,” said Nielsen.
Things are different with Norway, which was a part of Sweden until 1905. Many families share relatives in both countries.
Historically, the Scandinavian nations have been bound together in a number of ways. With the exception of Finland, they share roughly common languages and cultures, and have currencies pegged to one another. They have long allowed travel among themselves without border checks and documents. In fact, the Nordic Passport Union, established in 1954, was a model for the EU’s open border system.
But then came the pandemic. The issue of Sweden’s pariah status was hotly debated recently on a popular Scandinavian radio program, “A Norwegian, a Swede and a Dane,” which broadcasts weekly in all three countries.
“We can’t visit Norway. We can’t go to Denmark,” said Asa Linderborg, a journalist with a leading Swedish paper, Aftonbladet, adding that even Finland had barred Swedes.
“We are supposed to sit here in our corner of shame, and the worst part is that you’re savouring it,” she said, referring to Sweden’s neighbours. “All Norwegians, all Danes and all Finns are loving that the Swedes aren’t welcome anywhere. I long for you, yet you don’t long for me.”
© 2020 New York Times News Service