Sweden is proudly tackling the coronavirus pandemic differently from almost any other affluent country ― with few business closures, public gatherings ongoing and only the most vulnerable encouraged to stay at home. But its approach risks higher levels of illness and death among its ethnic minority communities, advocates warn.
The country has more than 8,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. While the government has not reported a breakdown by ethnicity, local researchers noted “an astonishing high rate” of deaths among the Somali population in late March, and recent statistics suggest a disproportionate number of infections in areas of the capital and national center of the outbreak, Stockholm, with many residents from foreign backgrounds. Of the first 15 people to die of coronavirus in and around Stockholm, six were of Somali heritage ― a group that makes up less than 1% of the area’s population.
Many people in minority communities continued life as usual as the coronavirus began to spread in Sweden. They didn’t know not to: Sweden, although known for its openness to refugees and its social safety net, initially failed to release much advice on the pandemic in the non-Swedish languages spoken by thousands of citizens, including Somali. The government’s actions failed to account for cultural differences within a nation whose migrant and asylum-seeker populations have grown.
The result could provide a warning for the rest of the world of the public health costs of one-size-fits-all messaging ― and a parallel to reports from other countries, like the U.S., that the novel coronavirus is disproportionately hurting marginalized groups.
Moreover, the situation could supercharge toxic anti-immigrant voices in the country. A lingering public perception of a higher prevalence of the disease among groups that aren’t ethnically Swedish would be a gift for extreme political forces who have already found success in fear-mongering about migrants in recent years.
Facebook groups supportive of the far-right Sweden Democrats ― now one of the nation’s largest political parties ― have already featured comments cheering the early news of disproportionate coronavirus deaths among Somali-Swedes, the anti-racist magazine Expo found.
“A Chinese virus killing African Muslims in Sweden,” tweeted a Norwegian blogger named Fjordman who was heavily cited by Islamophobic mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. “The gift of open borders.”
Sweden’s approach to the disease has been to ask its citizens to be responsible about social activity ― the prime minister said people should behave as “adults” ― rather than impose the kind of restrictive measures taken elsewhere to slow the spread of the virus. Experts suggest the nation’s lighter touch jibes with Swedes’ trust in governmental guidance, and public health officials say it prevents panic while ensuring COVID-19 will only spread slowly.
But authorities’ traditional assumptions about how Swedes behave and the lack of clear restrictions have muddled their message. “People that are living in the shadow society, in the immigrant areas, are very confused,” said Nuri Kino, a journalist who’s a member of Sweden’s community of Syriac Christians from the Middle East.
A striking number of the coronavirus patients seen by Mariana Hannah, a nurse at a ward dedicated to COVID-19 victims at Stockholm’s Karolinska University Hospital, are of foreign descent, she told HuffPost.
“Did the information not arrive properly to these minority groups? That’s the question,” she said.
A representative for Sweden’s public health agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A quarter of Sweden’s population was born abroad. Segregation is common for citizens with immigrant backgrounds and the undocumented, creating enclaves where government messages can fail to permeate or clash with different values.
So even as hundreds of coronavirus cases appeared weeks ago ― with the first fatality occurring on March 11 ― and officials shared recommendations about handwashing, isolating if symptomatic and attempting to work from home, changes in behavior lagged, activists say, because life largely continued as normal while other countries began shutting down.
In Sweden’s Somali community, people may have continued their practice of visiting relatives who fell ill since they didn’t have other information, Jihan Mohamed of the Swedish-Somali Medical Association told the country’s national broadcaster, SVT.
Of the early fatalities of Somali heritage in Stockholm, five were from Järva, an area north of the capital that includes two neighborhoods, Rinkeby-Kasta and Spånga Tensta, which officials now cite as having an over-representation of coronavirus cases.
Hundreds of Järva residents who identify as Syriac attended two large memorials in early March for locals who had died, Gunay Raheb, the president of Sweden’s Syriac Orthodox Youth Federation, told HuffPost.
At least five COVID-related deaths among Syriacs have been tied to those events, she said, adding that dozens of attendees had to be hospitalized.
Community members started taking their own steps to limit infections. Raheb’s organization canceled a March 14 conference that would have been allowed under Swedish guidelines at the time permitting gatherings of less than 500 people. Young community members and clergy began urging Syriacs to stop attending church services, a daily practice for many older people.
“We know that… we socialize differently than ethnic Swedes. We love to be social, we love to be near the family, we have a different point of view concerning the elderly: we meet them every week,” Raheb said.
More than half of all Swedish households are made up of one resident, European Commission statistics show. Swedes from minority backgrounds say that’s not the case in their circles.
“The Swedish government should look differently at the different groups in Sweden,” Raheb added.
Kino, a fellow Syriac, and volunteers at the marketing firm Bright Mind Agency launched a campaign called “Tell Corona,” featuring videos of coronavirus-related guidance in Syriac, Somali, Romanian, Arabic and other languages.
“The government is asking people to stay home in its recommendations and when they see that buses in the city are packed with people, they get very confused: How can a bus be packed with people but they’re telling us not to go to our normal breakfast cafeteria?” he said.
He added that friends continue to ask him to meet at cafes even as his uncle, a priest, and aunt are battling the virus in hospital beds.
The nation is trying to improve its coronavirus response. Swedish officials have increased their outreach to minority communities, and the country is considering stricter lockdown standards that could address citizens’ differences in exposure and risk.
Hospitals already have measures in place to bridge cultural gaps. Their teams include medical staff who can speak a range of languages and dedicated translators, Hannah, the nurse, told HuffPost.
She’s happy with her government’s strategy overall, including support for health care professionals, and she said she believes officials will eventually be able to tell whether social divisions were a serious problem ― and make amends ― as they deal with what is ultimately a national problem rather than one affecting specific communities.
“It’s a small country and it always tries to do better,” Hannah said. “I think when they evaluate, maybe they will have to reconsider if with the minority groups they could have done something different, but that’s something for the future.”
At present, “I feel safe,” Hannah said. “But when I’m thinking ahead I get scared … will the protective equipment run out within a couple of months?”