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Virus pariah Sweden's reputation takes a hit

  • Pia Ohlin and Camille Bas-Wohlert

    Agence France-Presse

Malmo/Stockholm, Sweden   /   Tue, June 16, 2020   /   07:48 am
Virus pariah Sweden's reputation takes a hit People practice social distancing outside the entrance to the city park Tradgardsforeningen as the spread of the COVID-19 continues, in central Gothenburg, Sweden April 24, 2020.Sweden has long enjoyed a strong reputation as a world leader on issues like gender equality and human rights, but its reputation is taking a beating over its softer approach to the new coronavirus, with Swedes now unwelcome across much of Europe. (REUTERS/TT News Agency/Adam Ihse)

Sweden has long enjoyed a strong reputation as a world leader on issues like gender equality and human rights, but its reputation is taking a beating over its softer approach to the new coronavirus, with Swedes now unwelcome across much of Europe.

As many European nations reopened their borders on Monday, at least seven countries have barred Swedes from entering -- including closest neighbors Denmark, Norway and Finland -- and five others require them to quarantine if they do enter.

As of Monday, the Scandinavian country had 4,891 COVID-19 deaths -- and one of the highest death rates in the world at 484 deaths per million.

Finding itself in the position of pariah is uncharted territory for Sweden, named by the Reputation Institute as the world's most reputable country in 2016, 2018 and 2019 lauded for its transparency, safety and universal healthcare and for being ethical and progressive.

But for now, Sweden's approach to corona has left the country in the cold and many Swedes have had to cancel their summer travel plans.

Sven Hultin, a 54-year-old human resources executive, was, like many Swedes, taking the criticism in his stride.

"I talk with people across the world all the time and they really do not share the same hostile view as communicated by media and politicians," Hultin told AFP.

But if people "are scared of us for any reason, that is their coping strategy and I respect it," he said, adding his family had had to cancel trips in Europe this summer.

 

What were they thinking? 

Anna Holmryd, a 57-year-old civil servant, said she didn't understand the focus on Sweden, saying "the virus doesn't recognize borders."

"I think we have as much coronavirus in Sweden as in other countries but everyone is talking a lot about Sweden... I think it is strange to distinguish between countries," she said.

Alejandra Pizarro Correa, a 44-year-old entrepreneur, said she thought "the image of Sweden has changed quite a bit. People are wondering what Sweden was thinking."

Unlike most nations, Sweden never locked down to curb the virus' spread, instead allowing schools for under-16s to remain open, as well as restaurants, cafes, bars and most businesses.

Swedes were, however, urged to work from home if possible, and respect hygiene and social distancing guidelines. Those over the age of 70 and in groups at risk were urged to stay home.

Visits to homes for the elderly were also banned and gatherings limited to 50 people.

Nikola, a 39-year-old who works in customer service for an insurance company, said European countries were right to lock Swedes out.

"They're right. We haven't taken corona seriously compared to other countries. We have almost 5,000 dead in Sweden, there are not even 5,000 dead in all the other Nordic countries combined," he told AFP. 

Ewa Lagerqvist, the head of national tourism organization Visit Sweden, said the negative press "has of course affected Sweden's image" abroad and there would be fewer tourists than usual this summer.

But she was confident things would eventually return to normal, with Visit Sweden already seeing more interest in the country now than a few months ago. 

"Many [tourists] come to Sweden because they're interested in our lifestyle, nature and culture," she told AFP.

 

Will wounds heal? 

Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde said she was worried about the negative view of Sweden abroad, especially in the Nordic region where strong cross-border ties have existed since the 1950s, including passport-free travel.

"I'm worried that the Nordic cooperation will be negatively affected," Linde told daily Dagens Nyheter on Sunday.

"Suddenly there's rivalry and hard feelings between people where there haven't even really been borders before." 

"I'm worried about how long these wounds will last," she said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven insisted that the situation was improving in Sweden.

"During a period where we have a high number of people being tested, it looks like we have a sudden increase in cases. But the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is going down and the number of deaths is going down. So authorities have to start comparing apples with apples, instead of apples and oranges," he told Swedish Television on Sunday.