Tuesday, January 19, 2021

How and Why Sweden Bucked the European-Lockdown Trend: A Swedish-Jewish Perspective

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While most L.A. parents were figuring out how to educate, entertain and, yes, even enjoy their children while locked inside their homes at the peak of coronavirus regulations, Petra Kahn-Nord, the head of information for the Stockholm Jewish Community, sent her kids to school as usual.

A mother of four children ages 2 to 15, Kahn-Nord could not have imagined life any other way. “From a strictly personal point of view, Sweden’s strategy kept me sane,” she said. “I know it would’ve been a trauma for me and my family if we had to be at home.”

Sweden has drawn international criticism and admiration for requiring students through junior high school to pack their backpacks, and for not forcing shops, businesses and restaurants to close. Kahn-Nord tried a home office for a month, as a recommended precaution, but she became irritable. “The first day I came back from the office, my 12-year-old daughter said, ‘My nice, happy mom is back.’ ”

Kahn-Nord spoke from her family’s country home outside of Stockholm. Many city dwellers have a summer tradition of retreating to the country, but that’s not why Stockholm was empty in mid-July, when I risked going into quarantine upon my return to Berlin. Sweden had been placed on a risk list because of an infection rate of more than 50 cases per 1 million people.

As of mid-July, I was tour guide and journalist David Stavrou Kay’s only client. Normally, he would be working around the clock at this time, catering mostly to Baltic cruises, with a specialty in Jewish issues. An Israeli of British roots, he reports on Swedish policy for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, and lives in Stockholm with his wife (whom he met at an Israeli kibbutz 25 years ago) and their four kids. Despite a more open coronavirus society, Stavrou Kay said Swedish life is not “business as usual.” The country that has given the world IKEA, Volvo, H&M and, of course, ABBA, relies on the global economy and travel for its GDP.

The forlorn Jewish Museum in the Old Town, which opened only after the first wave seemed to pass, reflected the approximately 75 percent downturn in Stockholm tourism compared to last summer. Converted from a synagogue founded in 1774 by German merchant Aaron Isaak, the Jewish Museum used to host hundreds of visitors a day. On a good day, it now gets about a dozen.

(Video below is available in German and English. Click closed caption for English subtitles.)

 “Sweden has a very, very powerful civil service and a lot of professional decisions, certainly in issues like public health, are taken on a professional and non-political level,” explained Stavrou Kay. “So, the face of the Swedish strategy when it comes to coronavirus is not the prime minister or health minister, but the state epidemiologist.”

That person is Anders Tegnell, whose team went with “the cure can’t be worse than the disease” reasoning. When Sweden was placed on a risk list, Tegnell argued that case numbers rose from increased testing. By the time I came back to Berlin, numbers dropped, and Germany lifted the quarantine requirement for arrivals from Sweden.

“Sweden is known as a society that has a very high trust both in government and a high trust of people in one another,” Stavrou Kay said. “So the Swedish government would be very reluctant to make people take certain steps by law, and would be much more happy to make recommendations.”

Indeed, “keep a distance” signs were omnipresent throughout Stockholm, but masks were not required and barely seen in any public space.

While Sweden’s approach may have benefited the younger generation, especially school-aged kids (and their parents), the older generation took a hard hit. About 5,700 people died, mostly elderly in nursing homes, including the Jewish nursing home. About 20 members of Stockholm’s Jewish population died of coronavirus, most in their 80s and 90s, with one man in his 60s. Several of Kahn Nord’s Jewish peers contracted the virus, but their symptoms passed like a flu. As far as she knows, no one contracted the coronavirus from schoolkids.

Sweden’s relatively high death rate has prompted a commission into Sweden’s approach, but nursing-home caregiver Tanja Domsnkewitz, a native Swede who lives in northern Sweden with her native Israeli husband and their four children, believes she can pinpoint the cause: Sweden’s liberal mask policy, which it has since corrected for nursing homes and hospitals. Given its causalities, the Jewish community in particular took great pains to import masks, given a shortage in Sweden.

“We thought from the beginning already that we are going to wear masks, first to protect our elderly people, but they said there are no possibilities to get these masks because we don’t have them,” Domnskewitz said at a café in Stockholm.

Most of the Jewish fatalities were Holocaust survivors who, along with their descendants, account for most of Sweden’s Jewish population, which unofficially number between 15,000 to 20,000 thousand. After Sweden developed its signature welfare system in the 1930s under the Social-Democratic Party (now the ruling party), it prided itself on accepting immigrants, including Holocaust survivors, and most controversially, Muslims from Arab countries, including more than 100,000 Syrian asylum seekers in the last 10 years − an immigration policy just as criticized and praised as Sweden’s coronavirus strategy. 

According to Aron Verständig, president of Stockholm’s Jewish community, these migrants have imported anti-Semitic notions from their homeland, but concerns over anti-Semitism also extend to the radical left and right. Malmo often is cited as a flashpoint for Islamic anti-Jewish activity, where visibly “Jewish” Jews risk being harassed and targeted with anti-Semitic taunts. Kahn-Nord was born in Malmo, but her parents, both children of Holocaust survivors, now are moving out.

What is the source of more fear in Sweden: the coronavirus or anti-Semitism?

“I think, of course, anti-Semitism, if it’s directed toward specific individuals, can be very dangerous, but assimilation and the fact that synagogues have been closed now for quote ‘a while’ — we’ll open in August — those things are more of a threat to the community as such,” Verständig said from his family’s country home.

Tomer Hen, an Israeli designer living in Stockholm for 17 years, wasn’t too surprised by Sweden’s novel coronavirus approach. He recalled how a normally non-confrontational Sweden bucked the European trend during World War II by remaining neutral, enabling the country to dispatch, under U.S. auspices, the famous rescuer of Hungarian Jews, Raoul Wallenberg. His memorial is a stone’s throw away from the now-closed community synagogue in the heart of the city. Hen generally is approving of the coronavirus policy, despite a downturn in work, and is not sure what to fear more − the virus or Jew-hatred.

“It’s a hard question,” Hen said. “I would say more the fact that I’m a Jew and Israeli. You feel safe and you don’t feel safe. I can openly speak Hebrew in the city and can be myself, but sometimes, I need to be careful.”

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