It’s an interesting time to be living in Sweden.
While the whole world is in lockdown mode, trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Sweden has taken a different approach. It has decided to keep itself open, allow people to roam freely, and let businesses function.
In the early days of the crisis, many of us in Sweden thought the lockdown was less an option and more a necessity. So we prepared like people all around the world did. We stocked up, we queued up in supermarkets, our pantries became full of milk cartons and eggs, and we stayed indoors.
However, soon enough we were told that the country would remain open. The decision surprised us all. Quite a few of us were shocked and some of us also criticised the government. Meanwhile, across the border, Denmark entered a complete shutdown. The Öresund bridge — a 21-kilometre-long bridge that connects Sweden’s southern city of Malmö to the Danish capital, Copenhagen — was shut. Those who live in one country and travel to another for work couldn’t do so any more.
Sweden’s contrasting decision derives from the high levels of trust its citizenry operates on, including trust in the government. If the health authorities recommend that those in risk groups shouldn’t step out, or that those with the slightest of symptoms should self-isolate, people are likely to do so.
And so I did. I live in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city. Like others, I work from home these days though it’s not mandatory to do so. However, I do step out to shop for groceries and go for walks. Being outside, sitting alongside the canal, picnicking in the park — all to catch whatever little bit of sun we can — is a beloved activity of all Swedes in the spring and summer months. As days become longer and warmer, the city is yearning to sit outside again.
Outside, while the thick hubbub of traffic has eased, it’s difficult to find any other signs of inactivity that would indicate that this Swedish city is in the grip of any pandemic. Shops and restaurants are open, and as crowded as they have always been. The city’s joyous commotion has not really ebbed. Only very few people are seen wearing masks. The only visible signs of the pandemic are the notices in supermarkets and shopping malls politely reminding people to maintain distance in queues.
Among my greatest joys of living in Sweden are my long walks. On an exceptionally sunny Saturday last weekend, I stepped out for one such, right across the city. I walked on a cobbled street that was brimming with people and punctuated with multiple coffee shops, many of which had laid out tables outside. I walked to the end of this pedestrian street, which merges into a canal that snakes across the city. Along the edge of this canal, recreational fishermen stood darting their fishing hooks in the shallow waters hoping for a catch. Their joy and camaraderie remained unhindered by the two-metre distance they maintained. Below, vibrantly coloured kayaks peppered the otherwise calm waters. Kayaking being a single-person sport seemed well-suited to the demands of social distancing.
I walked along the edge of the canal, which gently fused into a pathway leading to Malmö Castle. The castle stood deserted and solitary, perched on its small hill. I avoided it and veered towards the city’s main park, called Slottsspark. The park throbbed with life; the trees drooped under the weight of leafy branches, while the bushes and plants stretched out to cover the narrow pathways. The café in the middle of the park with outdoor seating was teeming with people sipping iced coffee. I waved to the coffee drinkers and walked past them to a wide-open field that stands here flanked by a modern glass library building on the other end. The library appeared empty, even as the garden itself was full of picnickers. They sat in groups drinking wine from plastic cups and playing frisbee and Kubb (a Swedish game involving knocking over wooden blocks (kubbs) by throwing wooden batons at them).
I sat down in one corner of the park. From where I sat, the world looked like it always had. The pandemic in Sweden seemed only like a little wrinkle in time, and normal life was well on its way back.
The adrenaline rush-seeking travel writer lives in Malmö, Sweden.