— What does it say at the bottom of a Norwegian ketchup bottle?
— Opens at the other end.
As a Swede, I know about a hundred jokes like that, and it wasn't until I moved to Norway in my early twenties I realized Norwegians tell the exact same ones about Swedes.
This fraternal rivalry between Scandinavian neighbors came to mind this morning as I read a headline in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter about "corona bullying." But the article wasn't about some schoolyard taunts or national chest-thumping, but rather a burgeoning erosion of longstanding cooperation on crucial matters of state between neighboring countries.
If such free and friendly countries can't make it work, what does it mean for international cooperation at large?
This last year has been fraught with sharp criticism between Northern experts and politicians, especially as Sweden has stuck to its light-touch containment strategy despite the region's highest COVID-19 death and case numbers. At the pandemic's deadly peak in May, Frode Forland, Norwegian Director of Infectious Diseases at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said that his Swedish counterpart Anders Tegnell needed to be more humble in his approach; Tegnell snapped back saying it wasn't his job to review the Norwegian strategy.
Sweden's outspoken top epidemiologist Anders Tegnell in Stockholm in October — Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT/ZUMA
A recent poll now shows that 44% of Swedes believe Nordic cooperation has been harmed. The study was published days after the Swedish government announced that the armed forces would be assisting the police at the Norwegian and Finish border to enforce demands on COVID-19 tests before entry.
Many of the measures meant to curb the spread risk amplifying nationalism.
This deterioration of Nordic comity and limits on trade beg the question: If such free and friendly countries can't make it work, what does it mean for international cooperation at large?
Our tendency to search for scapegoats has been evident during pandemics of the past: As syphilis spread during the early 16th century, the illness was dubbed the French disease, the Spanish disease, or the Neapolitan disease, depending on where you were. Indeed, In the absence of adequate international collaboration, many of the measures meant to curb the spread (border controls, vaccine passports) risk amplifying the nationalism that was on the rise around the world before the pandemic struck.
As such, it should worry us that not only has a certain former American president chosen to refer to the Chinese virus, but that some of our Norwegian and Finnish neighbors have come to see COVID as the Swedish virus.