Here’s what Australians in Sweden think about the country’s controversial coronavirus approach

If you’ve been following news about the coronavirus pandemic closely, chances are you already have a strong opinion on Sweden’s approach to managing the spread of COVID-19.

But the experiences of some Australians currently living in the conditions in the Scandinavian nation might just differ.

When the pandemic hit, Sweden made the unconventional decision to not impose any lockdowns, unlike most of its European neighbours.

Instead, its strategy relied heavily on people taking personal responsibility for protecting themselves and those around them from the virus.

Its decision to go its own way made it a popular topic of debate for international health professionals, news organisations and political pundits alike.

Those against lockdowns point to it as an example other nations should follow, but others who favour stringent public health measures highlight the country’s coronavirus death toll, which is significantly higher than its Nordic neighbours.

So what’s it been like living through Sweden’s great coronavirus experiment? The ABC spoke with several Australian expats living across the country to get their thoughts.

‘People don’t seem to break rules’

Wendy Luttrell and her family
Wendy Luttrell, daughter and partner live in the rural Swedish city of Skellefteå.(Supplied)

Wendy Luttrell lives in Skellefteå, a city of around 32,000 people in the country’s north-east, with her Swedish partner and their newborn baby.

Ms Luttrell’s only lived in Sweden since December, and said she was initially critical of the country’s response, especially after hearing about Australia’s approach.

She said she questioned why the country didn’t lock down, and why nobody was wearing masks, but said she had since changed her mind.

“[Culturally], they’re naturally almost set up for it.”

Wendy standing in the countryside while holding her baby daughter.
Wendy Luttrell says people in Sweden are culturally set up for handling pandemic conditions.(Supplied)

There have been a total of 1,141 coronavirus cases and 31 deaths in the county where Skellefteå is located, according to figures from Sweden’s Public Health Agency, from a total population of around 270,000 people.

However, the numbers are far more alarming elsewhere in the country.

While Sweden’s population of about 10 million is less than half of Australia’s, it has reported 102,407 cases — about four times the 27,371 cases here.

Sweden also has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths and cases when compared to other Nordic countries.

As of Friday, more than 5,910 people have died of COVID-19 in Sweden compared to 278 people in neighbouring Norway, 675 in Denmark and 346 in Finland — although Sweden has double the population.

Sweden has the 14th-highest deaths per capita in the world, only one position lower than Italy, according to the latest figures by Oxford University.

Many of the deaths occurred in aged care settings or in homes where people were receiving professional care.

Less strict rules difficult to replicate in Australia

People sit drinking beer in Stockholm.
Restaurants, pubs and even nightclubs have been allowed to remain open in Sweden.(Reuters: Anders Wiklund)

In the capital, Stockholm — around nine-hours away from Skellefteå by car — fellow expat Andrew Digges said the rules didn’t seem as strict as countries like Australia.

Swedes are being told to work from home if they can, stay home if they have any symptoms, and while restaurants, pubs and even nightclubs have been allowed to remain open, they can only provide socially-distanced table service.

Simon Keane, wearing sunglasses, sits at an outside table at a restaurant on a sunny day with a drink in front of him.
Simon Keane, a PhD student from Melbourne living in the town of Skövde, Sweden.(Supplied)

Simon Keane, a PhD student from Melbourne living in the town of Skövde, said even though he was in favour of Sweden’s approach to managing COVID-19, he didn’t think it would work in Australia.

“I think that most Swedes trust that the government agencies will make good, well-founded and grounded decisions,” he said.

“And whilst they may not like the decisions or rules, they at least follow them. I don’t think that people in Australia have the same level of respect for government agencies.”

As an added plus, Mr Keane said he thought Swedes’ natural penchant for social distancing might also be working in their favour — a fairly commonplace observation from expats and Swedes alike.

Free to travel at home and abroad

Ethan Brooker lives in the small town of Lidköping with his Swedish partner, who is a doctor at the local hospital.

Ethan Brooker and his partner stare at the camera and embrace in a selfie taken in front of a big old red building.
Australian expat Ethan Brooker has just returned from a short holiday in France.(Supplied)

In a sign of how different pandemic-related rules are in Sweden compared to Australia, Mr Brooker recently travelled to the southern city of Malmö for a baptism, and took a week-long holiday in France last month.

Despite the relative freedom they’ve enjoyed over the European summer, he said people in Lidköping had been working hard to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Life in the town of around 25,000 people changed considerably early on in the pandemic, when locals began working from home and avoiding public places like the library, shopping centres and cinemas.

“The town was pretty empty for months,” Mr Brooker said.

He said the coverage he’d seen of Sweden’s pandemic polices in the Australian media — which has often focused on the country’s decision not to impose lockdowns — didn’t seem particularly helpful to him.

“I felt like [it] didn’t help to raise the quality of debate in Australia … It was quite black and white, focusing on the idea of ‘lockdown versus no lockdown’, when in reality there are many more components to a successful public health response.”

‘Less of a panic’

A man taking a selfie at the edge of a cliff wearing a blue and yellow hat with the swedish flag.
Clint Grundy says many of his friends and family are struggling back in Australia.(Supplied)

For Melbourne father Clint Grundy, the decision to move to Sweden with his family last year was almost serendipitous.

Mr Grundy, a construction project manager, currently lives on the island of Gotland and said his experience has been completely different from his extended family and friends back home.

“A lot of family and friends are going through a pretty bad time,” he told the ABC.

Mr Grundy said there was “less of a panic” in Sweden, and the approach of the Swedish Government has been domestically “less political” than in Australia.

Clint Grundy and son sitting on his lap in Sweden.
Mr Grundy now coaches his son’s ice hockey team on weekends.(Supplied)

The Grundy family’s life in Sweden could hardly be more different from what they would be experiencing if they had stayed in Melbourne.

“We’re actually travelling in a couple of weeks, we’re going to Prague … one of the biggest, fastest-growing COVID places, but I’ve kind of decided to get on with life rather than sit still for too long,” he said.

Not all industries left untouched

Swedes gather in the sun around a lake.
Sweden’s decision to go its own way made it a popular topic of debate for international health professionals.(Reuters: Stina Stjernkvist)

However, life in Sweden during the pandemic hasn’t been relatively unchanged for everyone.

Stockholm chef Gaeton Graham told the ABC he lost his job due to COVID-19: he works for the theme park Gröna Lund, which has not been able to remain open due to the ban on public gatherings of 50 or more people.

“I’m in the unfortunate situation of working for the one employer that can’t open by law,” Mr Graham said.

On the plus side, Mr Graham said he was getting to spend a lot of time with his kids, despite schools in large part remaining open in Sweden.

“School policy is that small children must be kept home for the duration of any and all flu-like symptoms, and then for 48 hours with no symptoms,” he said.

“We have two small children, so we’ve had them home a lot.”