Sweden, COVID19 and Invisible Immigrants
Christian Christensen, Stockholm University
The first death from COVID-19 in Sweden was reported on 11 March 2020. As of the writing of this chapter — just over one year after that first death — over 14,500 residents have lost their lives with the disease. In reports published by the City of Stockholm, stark differences in how COVID-19 impacted different districts of the city were made clear. In June of 2020, Stockholm (not including outlying suburbs) saw 53 cases and 9.3 deaths of/with COVID-19 per 10,000 inhabitants. Within the city, however, certain districts saw much higher per capita numbers. The Rinkeby-Kista district, for example, was hit hardest, with 96 cases and 16.7 deaths per 10,000: rates nearly double the city average; and, in the case of per capita deaths, triple the national rate. Other Stockholm city districts seeing numbers significantly above national and city averages included Skärholmen (13.1 deaths per 10,000) and Spånga-Tensta (12.0 deaths per 10,000). All of these districts have much higher-than-average percentages of residents either born outside of Sweden, or with parents born outside of Sweden. The national and ethnic background of those most impacted by COVID-19 in Stockholm provided yet another layer of over-representation, with residents of Stockholm who were born in Somalia, Syria and Lebanon were found to have died at significantly higher rates than the general population, with residents of Stockholm born in Somalia experiencing per capita rates of death four times higher than residents of Stockholm born in Sweden.
A major shortcoming within Sweden during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in Stockholm was a lack of mainstream media attention given to minority groups disproportionately affected by the disease. Other than a few articles in late March, the impact of the virus on regions such as Rinkeby-Kista and Spånga-Tensta went largely unreported, as did the fact that local authorities were slow to both recognize the severity of the outbreak and the fact that early tracking of the disease did not include service industry workers such as taxi drivers, many of whom come from the Somali community. Mainstream media — public service, commercial and community/non-profit — are central actors in the dissemination of information, and often act as relays for local authorities. In addition, mainstream media silence on issues of public health can give the misleading impression that the issue is less than serious or important, creating a downward spiral of silence. Finally, a great deal of media coverage of Sweden (from all ideological positions) has claimed to analyze COVID19 by discussing “how Swedes live,” and “how Swedes are reacting,” with little reference to the disparity in how minority groups live and have been affected compared to the broader population.
In this chapter, international media coverage of Sweden’s infamous “light touch” COVID-19 strategy will be discussed in relation to immigrants and immigration. For years, immigrants were framed — by both right-wing and supposedly “progressive” outlets in the United States and Britain — as the central issue facing Swedish society, and as both a problem and a threat. Stockholm has been the epicenter of the COVID-19 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 media when arriving as refugees are the ones now bearing the disproportionate brunt of COVID-19. Coverage of this element of the impact of COVID-19 on Sweden has been striking by its absence. Ignoring this part of Sweden’s COVID-19 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
Swedish Exceptionalism and Immigration
Over the past year, an early body of work has emerged in relation to COVID19 in Sweden and marginalized communities, as well as the general Swedish response. While this chapter is not a systemic, empirically driven analysis of media coverage of COVID-19 and immigrant groups in Sweden, the discussion is nevertheless shaped by previous research on, and theory related to, notions of “Swedish exceptionalism” and cultural homogeneity, the mediated representation of immigrants groups and the physical and symbolic segregation of cities such as Stockholm (resulting in either the invisibility of immigrant/refugee groups or their stereotyping on connection to their location).
As will be discussed, international media coverage of Sweden during the COVID outbreak has revolved around an idealized view of the country rooted in social democratic romanticism and nostalgia, in which social divisions and inequality are either downplayed or ignored. This romanticization, in turn, is linked to the idea of “Swedish exceptionalism” addressed a decade ago by Karl-Ulrik Schierup and Aleksandra Ålund:
In spite of extended processes of urban segregation, social exclusion and labour market discrimination, until recently Sweden continued to be seen, from an international perspective, as the model of a tolerant and egalitarian multicultural welfare society, a kind of exceptionalist model for others to follow. It was a country that expressly aimed to merge extended rights of citizenship with a political framework free from essentialist conceptions of national belonging, through institutions geared towards this.
Mathias Ericson notes how Swedish exceptionalism ”needs to be examined as a form of power struggle, calling attention to how it contributes to the silencing and normalisation of racist and gendered power asymmetries and excluding practices,” as well as how “the idealisation of Sweden as secure, modern and gender-equal tends to gain a certain symbolic function in narratives of crisis.” While the arrival of refugees from Syria in Sweden during 2014 and 2015 was one of these ”narratives of crisis” (see also Dalia Abdelhady), the COVID-19 outbreak was also a crisis in which Swedish exceptionalism played a decisive narrative role. The shift in post-COVID representation of refugees and immigrants in the American-Anglo media — from central and problematic upon arrival to invisible and irrelevant upon illness — is linked to questions of national identity and national belonging. In the international press, the arrival of refugees from Syria in 2014 and 2015 generated what Gabriella Elgenius and Jens Rydgren have defined as a hierarchical, “ethno-pluralist” worldview forwarding the idea that, “a peaceful society (…) requires an ethnically homogeneous population.” In this worldview, the authors also note, “different cultures and ethnicities can never co-exist peacefully.” In this context, the yearning for a “Swedish Golden Age” is the yearning for a “golden age of the 1950s, with a nostalgia for civic egalitarianism, rhetorically rebranded ethnically as a period of pre-immigration.” This vision of a Sweden tarnished by immigration has been prominent in international coverage over the past six to seven years, and is an important starting point for understanding why the invisibility that followed was both striking and telling.
Pre-COVID: Immigrants as Focus and Threat
An understanding of the media coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak, with a particular eye toward the representation of Swedish society in general, and of minority groups in particular, benefits from addressing such coverage not only over the duration of the outbreak (going back to the start of 2020), but over the past seven years. After Sweden decided in 2014 to accept a large number of refugees from Syria, with an estimated 160,000 asylum seekers arriving in 2015 alone, significant portions of the international press treated the arrival of refugees in Sweden, and the social and political impacts of those arrivals, as the defining issues in coverage of the country. Perhaps no single comment better exemplified to extent to which Sweden and immigration had become joined at the hip than President Trump’s now-famous “last night in Sweden” comment, where he falsely claimed that there had been a terrorist attack in the country as a result of excessive immigration.
While Trump’s single comment was much discussed, no period illustrated the media infatuation with Sweden and immigration more than the run-up to the 2018 Swedish elections, when immigration was regularly touted by the international press as the most important issue facing the nation, with the overwhelming majority of stories published in the American-Anglo media being about immigrants, immigration, refugees and social problems. This, despite the fact that opinion polls in Sweden before the elections showed that issues other than immigration were, if fact, more prominent in the minds of voters. The following headlines from the US and UK press in the months before the September 2018 elections were typical of how immigration and refugees dominated coverage, and framed the representation of Swedish society:
Anti-migrant Mood Boosts Far-Right Party in Swedish Election
A Changing Society; Over a fifth of Sweden’s 10 Million People Have Foreign Roots, and Immigration Has Become the Defining Issue in the Current Election Campaign
How the Far Right Conquered Sweden
Polls Open in Sweden after Heated Election Campaign Centered on Immigration
Immigration and Welfare Fears Merge as Sweden Lurches to The Right
Anti-migrant Feeling Fuels Swedish Far Right as Election Looms
Swedish Election: Vote Begins Amid Anti-Immigration Surge
The attention paid by the American-Anglo media to refugees and immigrants in Sweden was not limited to elections only, however. For example, in 2016, Foreign Policy published a piece with the title, “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth” in which it was claimed that the refugee crisis was, “the story of the exorbitant, and ultimately intolerable, cost that Sweden has paid for its unshared idealism,” and where the author asked a Swedish politician if he felt that the nation was, “in the process of committing suicide.” In late 2015, the New York Times called the refugee situation, “Sweden’s Self-Inflicted Nightmare,” while the UK’s Daily Telegraph lamented that, “Sweden is the perfect example of how not to handle the Great Migration” and the Murdoch-owned New York Post called Sweden, “a vast social experiment that wasn’t well thought-out and isn’t going very well.” In perhaps the most overt illustration of how some media saw immigration as an existential threat to not just Swedish society, but also to Swedish ethnic identity, in July 2019 the New York Times published an article with the headline, ”Changing Face of Sweden: Boon or Burden?” The accompanying full-page picture was that of a Black man.
The overarching theme in a great deal of the coverage of Sweden post-Syrian refugees but pre-COVID was one of the arrival of refugees and migrants as the defining social and political issue for Sweden, and one that posed a existential threat to social democracy, and to a mythological Swedish exceptionalism addressed by Schierup and Ålund and Ericson. This ethnocentric coverage of the intake of refugees to Sweden was not limited to media outlets associated with the anti-immigration political right in the United States and Britain, but cut across the (admittedly limited) ideological spectrum of mainstream media. However, as COVID hit Sweden in February of 2020, and as Sweden’s subsequent COVID policies became issues of widespread international reporting, criticism and praise, immigrants and refugees would almost immediately and entirely disappear from view.
COVID: Criticism and Praise for Sweden’s Policies. But No Immigrants.
American-Anglo media coverage of Sweden after the outbreak of COVID in February 2020 was significant. A basic search in the Retriever media database showed that just under 2,000 articles were written in the American-Anglo press on the subject of Sweden and COVID since February of 2020. Interest in Sweden during this period increased largely because the nation decided to implement what has been described as everything from a “light touch” to an “irresponsible” national policy. While other nations in Europe opted for lock-downs, curfews and school closures, Swedish society remained, at least in relative terms, open. There were no lock-downs or curfews, businesses such as bars and restaurants — while subject to limitations on the number of customers — remained open, and only high schools and universities made use of distance classes. It is worth noting that while some legal scholars in Sweden argued that the government was forbidden by the Swedish constitution to implement mandatory lockdowns, closures or other bans, other scholars disagreed, saying that the possibility (albeit in limited form) existed.
From an international media perspective, one of the more perplexing decisions (or non-decisions) by the Swedish Health Authority and the government was to not issue a recommendation to wear face-masks in crowded public places or on public transportation. This flew in the face of virtually every other nation in the world, and added fuel to the fire of critics who claimed that Sweden was endangering its population by ignoring, if not established science on face-masks, then at the very least commonly-accepted best practices based on the available scientific data. As the second wave of infections and deaths hit Sweden in late 2020 the health authority and government finally relented, issuing a recommendation (though not a requirement) that masks be used on public transportation during periods of heavy use (morning and afternoon rush hours). Reports from around the country, however, indicated that public transport users in Sweden were largely ignoring the recommendations and traveling on crowded buses and trains without masks.
Variations in the American-Anglo media reaction to Sweden’s COVID policy mirrored variations in the impact of the disease in Sweden in terms of deaths and ICU admissions. From March until mid-summer 2020, media criticism of Sweden’s policy from what can broadly be described as the centrist mainstream media was intense. Sweden’s actions were framed by these outlets as both anti-science and irresponsible, with many news outlets utilizing the frame that life in Sweden was going on “as normal” and without any significant changes despite the epidemic, and that this policy was rooted in a general belief in the part of the Swedish authorities that citizens could be trusted to do the right thing, even if the restrictions in place were nothing more than voluntary.
As the summer of 2020 progressed, however, deaths and ICU cases in Sweden began to plummet, and from late summer through the fall of 2020 Sweden appeared to have gone through the worst of the epidemic. It was during this period of (supposed) respite that a counter-intuitive mediated ideological movement emerged: American and British politicians, journalists and social media “opinion leaders” on the political right — and on the “Libertarian” wing of the political right in particular — began to use Sweden as a symbol for liberty, personal freedom and absence of government intrusion on the private lives of citizens. For this group, the lack of lock-downs, curfews, school and business closures and face-mask requirements demonstrated that the Swedish government had placed responsibility for addressing the pandemic in the hands of citizens, thus demonstrating a level of trust they saw as absent in their home countries. The irony of the libertarian right championing Sweden was thick, given the fact that they had spent years painting the nation as being in free-fall as the result of immigration, and as a country marked by oppressive, “Big Government” leftism. By the end of 2020, however, a second wave of ICU cases and deaths in Sweden began, and, with that, articles from right-wing media outlets on how Sweden “beat COVID” largely disappeared.
Despite the clear split in ideological perspectives between those who criticized the Swedish COVID policy and those who praised it, there was one common element linking the two camps: both largely erased the deadly impact of COVID immigrants and refugees from their coverage. After thousands of articles in the American, British, and European press between 2015 and 2019 addressing the intake of refugees and immigrants by Sweden — including pieces addressing the impact of immigration on national politics, local politics, crime and culture — in which immigration was framed for viewers, listeners and readers as the defining issue facing the nation, those same immigrants, dying at triple the national mortality rate, were rarely mentioned.
The invisibility of immigrants also applied to international pieces about Sweden, both positive and negative, published by Swedes. An October 2020 opinion piece in Time, for example, provided a lengthy, detailed argument as to why the Swedish COVID-19 response was a “disaster” that should not be a model for others to follow. The plight of immigrant groups was not mentioned as one of the reasons for that disaster. Nor were immigrants mentioned in an opinion piece in the New York Times, written by a Swedish journalist living in Stockholm, with the title, “I Live in Sweden. I’m Not Panicking.” The accompanying image was (once again) of a large group of customers sitting at an expensive café in an exclusive part of central Stockholm: a clear juxtaposition to the strict lockdowns in the rest of Europe. It is telling that of the thousands of articles published about Sweden during the first year of the COVID-19 outbreak, only a handful made meaningful reference to the disproportionate plight of immigrants and refugees, including an April of 2020 in Foreign Policy and a June 2021 piece on ABC News. Despite the wealth of data available in mid-2020 on the impact of the disease on immigrant communities, US/UK outlets largely chose to ignore these data, even when criticizing Sweden’s policy and discussing the impact on “Swedish society.”
A final element lacking in coverage of Sweden and COVID in the American-Anglo (and international) press was any significant mention of social and economic inequality in Swedish society, again playing upon romanticized notions of an overwhelmingly egalitarian Sweden. While articles addressed how “Swedes” were reacting to a policy that rested on voluntary compliance with recommendations (rather than legally biding laws or mandates), these pieces largely ignored the fact that that recommendations to work from home or avoid using public transportation were far more likely to be followed by those with jobs that allowed working from home, or with the means to own a car. Similarly, widespread international coverage of Sweden’s decision to not recommend the use of face-masks was very rarely linked to the fact that those most likely to benefit from wide-spread mask use would be those unable to work from home, working in sectors with high levels of interpersonal contact — like low-paid elderly care workers, who are often newly arrived immigrants — and using crowded public transportation to get to work. Even in a piece on how immigrants in Sweden are not benefitting from the economic rebound as COVID begins to subside, no mention is made of the impact on the health of Stockholm’s immigrant community.
This avoidance of the political economy of illness accentuated the invisibility of newly-arrived refugees and immigrants, many of whom work in lower-paid, part-time, precarious jobs. In a March 2021 report by Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter it was shown that, among those aged 50–64 who had died in Sweden, those in the lowest income bracket (making €1,000 a month or less) were seven times more likely to die from COVID than those in the highest bracket (making €5,000 a month or more). For education levels, residents of Sweden aged 60–79 who had done at least 3 years of higher education were 2.5 times less likely to die of COVID than residents with no more than primary school education. This income and education gap was reflected in significant differences between various districts of Stockholm in terms of mortality: even when adjusting for age, gender, job, income and country of birth, residents of Stockholm living in parts of the city with the highest numbers of deaths per capita were 4.5 times more likely to die of COVID than those living in parts of Stockholm with the lowest number of deaths per capita. Many pieces about Sweden (both positive and negative) highlighted the relative openness of Stockholm with accompanying images from central areas of the city, often showing crowded restaurants and cafes or shopping areas in fancy areas, while rarely (if ever) noting how this “openness” was reliant upon lower-paid workers such as cleaners or kitchen staff, often with immigrant background, who lived and commuted from parts of the city never shown or discussed in articles.
The Fluid Identity of Immigrants and Refugees
The relative invisibility of immigrants and newly arrived refugees in American-Anglo media coverage of the COVID outbreak in Sweden, after a heavy period of coverage and visibility in the pre-COVID years, points to what Lilie Chouliaraki and Rafal Zamborowski define as their “ambiguous” and “fluid” identities. In their review of research on the representation of refugees in the press, the authors write that the refugee is, “an essentially ambiguous figure suspended between victimhood and malevolence,” and one who is at one and the same time in need of protection and threatening to the community to which they have been accepted. Chouliaraki and Zamborowski note that these tropes, while seemingly antithetical, have now become, “co-existing rather than opposing categories.”
The rapid invisibility of refugees and immigrants in international media coverage of Sweden and COVID-19 is indicative of not only fluid and shifting identities, but also how the “crisis” of their arrival was so clearly and quickly bifurcated from the everyday lives that they now live in the country: everyday lives that naturally include illness. After what Myria Georgiou and Rafal Zaborowski (2017) described as a feeling of “ecstatic humanitarianism” directed toward refugees in Europe after release of images of the body of Alan Kurdi washed up on the shores of Greece, attitudes in Europe toward refugees quickly shifted to criticism and aggression. Three linguistic strategies identified by Chouliaraki and Zamborowski were used in coverage of refugees, which all overlap with the shift from pre-COVID to COVID coverage of Sweden:
silencing, or the omission of voice altogether; collectivization, or the incorporation of refugees into collective referents, such as nationality, in ways that eliminate their status as unique individuals; and decontextualization, or the severing of individual lives from the historical conditions within which their requests to be hosted derive their legitimacy and justification.
While pre-COVID coverage of fell into the category of “collectivization,” whereby refugees were placed into lumpen masses based solely on nationality (Syrian, Somali, Iraqi), COVID coverage also silenced refugees by not addressing their plight in coverage of COVID. Again, the sheer volume of attention given to the intake of refugees and immigrants in Sweden after 2014 was in stark contrast to the silence about those same refugees and immigrants after the outbreak of COVID, making the mediated juxtaposition between the “crisis” of their arrival and unimportance of their daily lives (including illness) all the more striking.
The invisibility of newly arrived refugees and immigrants in Sweden was accentuated by a refusal on the part of media outlets to address the relationship between Sweden’s policy and economic inequality, which disproportionately impacts residents of Sweden with immigrant backgrounds. To return to Chouliaraki & Zamborowski (2017), the discussion of how “Sweden” and “Swedes” reacted to COVID and COVID policies both silenced and decontextualized the refugee/immigrant experience in Sweden by presenting a homogeneous, monolithic image of the nation, devoid of economic and social segregation. Scholars such as Courtney Bonham, et al. and Allan Pred have noted that racial groups are often associated with specific spaces within a city (creating “racialized spaces”), so when media outlets largely covered central Stockholm (with images of expensive cafes and interviews with residents of expensive areas) as if it/they represented all of Stockholm, that representation not only erased the lived reality for many refugees and immigrants, it also did a serious disservice to readers of the coverage of Sweden’s COVID policy by taking attention away from one of the key factors impacting the spread of the disease in the city, namely social and economic inequality. Even one of the few articles on COVID to directly address the possible relationship between urban segregation and health failed mention questions of immigration and ethnicity.
This chapter was intended as a starting point for thinking about the coverage of Sweden and COVID with an eye toward the role played by media in radically shifting discourses about marginalized segments of societies dependent upon circumstance. Shortly after refugees from Syria began to arrive in Sweden in 2014, the American-Anglo press framed the arrival as a crisis, and as a threat to a specific vision of what Sweden was, and should be. The impact of this group on Swedish society was pitched as deep and fundamental, with the very fabric of social democracy threatened by this arrival. An analysis and understanding of the international media coverage of Sweden’s COVID strategy without a consideration of this recent media history is to miss one of the central, problematic components of the coverage: an insistence upon clinging to a vision of a Social Democratic Sweden that no longer exists in order to “explain” Swedish policy. Immigration is but one component of that equation, but it is nevertheless an important one.
The omission of Sweden’s disproportionately affected immigrant community is problematic because it not only reinforces the myth of a “homogenous” Sweden by negating the very existence of immigrants in Swedish society, but it also reiterates the related myth of an egalitarian Sweden largely free from inequality, social exclusion and discrimination. It also cynically bypasses the political economy of illness and the relationship between relative poverty and COVID-19. These are all aspects of Swedish society lost in a melange of aggressive Swedish nation-branding, social democratic utopianism and international views of Sweden and “Swedishness” mired in what is perhaps best described as 1970s nostalgia.
By perpetuating stereotypes about Swedish society, through the repetition of myth or the omission of lived existence, any attempted analysis of COVID-19 will remain superficial. As international media outlets continue to interrogate Sweden’s COVID-19 strategy, they would do well to abandon what they think they know about the country, its political system and its people, and attempt to discover what they do not know, or do not wish to know. One place to start is to give voice to the very people the media claimed would radically re-shape Swedish society, but then chose to silence.
(This is a draft of a chapter in the forthcoming book, “Creative Resilience and Covid-19: Figuring the Everyday in a Pandemic” edited by Irene Gammel & Jason Wang)
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