Corona and Sweden

Carina Gunnarson
Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm, Sweden

The news reports from Italy, France and the rest of the world have been unrelenting throughout the month of March. Swedes have waited with increasing trepidation for “the big wave”, which is now said to have arrived. On March 29, it was reported that the death toll from the novel corona virus in Sweden had reached 110 . Some 3,700 people are confirmed to have been infected with Covid-19. In the absence of mass testing, the true number of infections is unknown. Stockholm has so far been the most affected, but it has started to spread to other regions. There is great concern among doctors and responsible authorities about the upcoming Easter holiday, when many take the opportunity to go skiing up in the mountains. Given the limited hospital capacity in the mountain regions, everyone is being urged to cancel their Easter travel plans. The government has warned that more restrictions will be introduced if necessary. On March 19, the parliament passed a resolution allowing the government to fast track the closure of primary and elementary schools.

While the rest of Europe has been put under quarantine in order to prevent the spread of the virus, Sweden has opted for a strategy that has so far been not involved forced compliance. Sweden’s “gentler approach” is to urge Swedes to assume personal responsibility. For now, there’s no formal travel ban in place within the country. According to the Public Health Agency, the expert authority with responsibility for public health issues, they have no plans to put Stockholm in quarantine since the virus has already spread throughout the country.

Sweden is still an open society, albeit with certain restrictions. Since March 18, all high school and university classes have been conducted remotely, but primary and elementary schools, as well as restaurants, gyms and other businesses remain open. A ban on public gatherings of more than 500 people was imposed on March 12, and was reduced further to just 50 people as of March 29. The ban does not, however, cover public transport or private gatherings. In the evenings, parks and walking paths are filled with joggers and people out taking a stroll.

Thus far, the government’s hands-off approach seems to be working. Many sectors have gone beyond the authorities’ recommendations. Sweden’s cultural life immediately cancelled all upcoming events, public and private alike. Several major companies in Stockholm’s “Silicon Valley”, in Kista, north of Stockholm, have also directed their personnel to work from home. The subway and commuter trains are virtually empty of people even during rush hour. Mobile phone data indicates that people have abandoned the center of Swedish cities (1).

My place of employment, the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), promptly imposed a travel ban on any work-related travel inside or outside the country. At my other workplace, the Institute for Futures Studies, video conferences, and “virtual coffee breaks” were quickly introduced. Sweden’s public sector and universities are highly digitalized environments, which partly explains the readiness of compliance and why people can fairly easily work from home. The development of insurance systems provides another explanation, as it affords people the financial security of opting to stay at home.

The corona pandemic appears to be having a dampening effect on crime. According to the national news program Ekot (25/3), the number of reports of home break-ins has dropped, for example. The trend is visible nationwide, but especially in the region of Stockholm. According to the police, more people are at home and therefore it is more difficult to carry out break-ins. Another possible explanation is that the international gangs that are typically responsible for a lot of the break-ins are now finding it more difficult to move between European countries, which affects the statistics. The police are also receiving fewer reports of crimes in restaurant and bar environments. On the other hand, the police have seen an increase in cases of fraud and attempted fraud, where perpetrators have been trying to take advantage of the corona virus especially to trick the elderly. There is, however, no indication of increased domestic violence, according to the police (2).

Sweden is still open, and it’s difficult to know the effect the corona virus will have on organized crime in Sweden. My own research focuses on a so-called “particularly vulnerable area” (Ronna in Södertälje) and how authorities cooperate there. Ronna is a socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhood with a high level of criminal activity in the form of drug dealing and recruitment of youths. A direct effect of the corona virus is that meetings between authorities have moved into the digital sphere. Social workers operating out in the field have to be careful due to the risk of spreading infection. That makes it more difficult to approach youths, especially if it involves larger groups. Instead, they try to approach the youths via Instagram, Snapchat, email and phone. (3)

If the corona pandemic leads to state authorities reducing their physical presence in the area, for example if schools and youth centers close, that will lead to increased anxiety and apprehension in the area and play into the hands of the criminal elements by strengthening their ability to instill fear in the neighborhood. At the same time, there is the possibility that the corona pandemic could “awaken” the neighborhood and generate increased engagement among its residents. On March 22, Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén held a speech to the nation regarding the ongoing corona pandemic. That has at least had a positive effect in that “they now know who Stefan Löfvén is” (4). Hopefully the pandemic will start to recede in a few months. But the more long-term consequences in the form of economic stagnation and high unemployment will likely continue to be particularly painful in these areas.

(1): Så övergav svenskarna stadskärnorna i krisen”, Dagens Nyheter, 28/3 2020.

(2) Bostadsinbrotten halverade efter coronautbrott”, Ekot, 25/3 2020.

(3) Interview with fieldworker, 27/3 2020.

(4) Interview with youth center employee, 27/3/2020.

This blog aims to reflect the opinions, thoughts, and concerns of academics and researchers related to COVID-19. It does not aim to engage any prediction. All views belong to authors and it does not represent the views of any organisation.