Want to Discuss Sweden and COVID19? Start By Looking Backward.

A right-wing protester in Minnesota holds a sign which reads "Be like Sweden" while another called the coronavirus pandemic a "fake crisis" during an anti-lockdown demonstration in Minnesota last week. (Photo: AP)

Want to Discuss Sweden and COVID19? Start By Looking Backward.

Sweden's intake of refugees—from Syrians five years ago to Somalis ten years ago—may not seem like an obvious place to start, but it is.

"A vast social experiment..."
"Committing suicide..."
"Self-inflicted nightmare..."

We have heard a lot about Sweden and its now-infamous "hands off" COVID19 strategy, and there is widespread international disbelief at a policy many consider to be tantamount to Sweden playing Russian roulette with the welfare of its citizens. The above quotes, taken from newspaper articles and directed at Sweden, would be perfect examples of this outrage.

Except for one thing: the quotes were not about Sweden's COVID19 policy. They were written several years ago about Sweden's intake of Syrian refugees fleeing a bloody civil war.

That the published reactions to Sweden's policy on refugees and COVID19 are so easily inter-changeable speaks volumes. These are two events that have shaped the international image of Sweden as few others over the past half-century.

Six years ago, when Sweden began the process of accepting more Syrian refugees per capita than any nation in Europe (and far more than the US), the xenophobic right lambasted Sweden, waxing nostalgic over the loss of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation that existed largely in their dreams. The supposed surrender of a mythical, Nordic Disneyland to the forces of immigration was linked to the politics of Swedish social democracy: a "leftist agenda" that wallows in state power, denies cultural heritage, and embraces both radical feminism and fundamentalist Islam. In short, Sweden had capitulated to the forces of multiculturalism.

In the last few years, the international right-wing obsession with all things Sweden has become borderline pathological.

So, it is with a pretty generous portion of chutzpah that many of the same right-wingers who smeared Sweden as a nation collapsing under the weight of restrictive "Cultural Marxism" now point to that same Sweden as the guiding light in the libertarian fight against COVID19. And, as the nation that has rejected Big Government in favor of keeping Sweden "open," trusting rational citizens to do the right thing. Nothing better crystallized this absurd turn-around than the image of a US protester against stay-at-home rules holding a sign reading, "Be Like Sweden!"

The call to "Be Like Sweden!" from portions of the right should lead us to consider the overlaps between the events that began six years ago, when Sweden's conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt--yes, the decision to take Syrian refugees was made under a conservative government--first implored citizens to "open their hearts" to refugees, and current reactions to Sweden's controversial COVID19 policy. While easy to point fingers at right-wing media, they are far from the only culprits. The supposedly "Liberal-Progressive" press drove a line of argument about Sweden during and after the intake of refugees that only served to reinforce a blatantly xenophobic worldview.

Sweden's acceptance of refugees starting in 2014 was often framed as a gamble and a risk: an argument disturbingly similar to how Sweden's COVID19 strategy is currently framed. Sweden's acceptance of refugees fleeing from a bloody war was rarely pitched as an act of humanitarianism, or as an ethical necessity that saved thousands of lives.

In addition, the Liberal-progressive wings of the international media in 2014 and 2015 did not implore other countries to "Be Like Sweden!" nor did they shame countries that took fewer refugees for "not caring" as much as the Swedes (as Sweden is now shamed in the press for NOT caring over its COVID19 strategy). The subtext was/is clear: policies that threaten Swedish lives are to be condemned, while policies that save the lives of the poor fleeing war are not worthy of praise, or recognized as humanitarian. Refugees were nothing more than cultural and economic "risks," and taking them in was simply contributing to the "death of the most generous nation on earth."

The hook in a great many of the current articles on Sweden's COVID19 strategy is that the policy relies on a reciprocal relationship of trust between citizens and the state. In other words, that Swedish citizens can be relied upon to "do the right thing" if left to their own devices. This frame of national responsibility and citizenship, currently applied to COVID19, was rarely applied when Sweden began taking refugees in 2014 (itself a question of life and death). Again, to the international press, the juxtaposition is stark: "social responsibility" applies only to saving the lives of Swedes, not refugees.

And what of those refugees who have arrived and settled in Sweden over the decades, from places like Chile, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria?

In Sweden, Stockholm is the epicenter of the COVID19 outbreak, and it is parts of the city with the highest percentage of residents with immigrant background that have been hit hardest. In other words, the very people vilified by the xenophobic right are the ones bearing the brunt of COVID19. This issue is one that has been radically under-discussed in the Swedish and international press. Ignoring this part of Sweden's COVID19 story erases the place of immigrants in Swedish society. This erasure, in turn, reinforces vague, stereotypical notions of Swedish social, economic, political and ethnic homogeneity that makes real analysis impossible.

So many pieces on Sweden (from all ideological positions) have claimed to analyze the COVID19 policy by discussing "how Swedes live," and "how Swedes are reacting," without so much as a nod to the huge disparity in how minority groups "live" and have been affected compared to the general population. When we lament the xenophobic right's smearing of Sweden over refugees, we should ask what role mainstream media play in reinforcing stereotypes with their coverage of events like COVID19, where inequality and discrimination are largely erased in favor of a non-existent cultural and economic uniformity.

This piece wasn't about criticism or praise of Sweden's COVID19 strategy. That's for epidemiologists. But, as Sweden's policy attracts international attention, it is worth considering how it is discussed.

Sweden's intake of refugees--from Syrians five years ago to Somalis ten years ago--may not seem like an obvious place to start, but it is. It provides a point of comparison for how we frame not only citizenship and responsibility, but also for how the very people who were the focus of heavy, critical coverage of Sweden's refugee policies are now a victims being air-brushed from most reporting on Sweden's COVID19 outbreak.

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