MALMÖ — On one of the final Fridays of 2020, I passed through the Malmö airport customs and underwent that subtle metamorphosis from The Swede to a Swede. This crossing from the definite to the indefinite is familiar to all returning expats, and its downside (deflated exceptionalism) and perks (nostalgia, familiarity) are felt at the first native exchange, and then sporadically with depreciating force — until, if you stay long enough, you're once again part of the herd.
At this year's homecoming however, the usual reassimilation also included a new adjustment: to a country that had lost its international shine. Yes, Sweden is still perceived abroad as exceptional. But this past year, the government's refusal to impose rules to restrict contact to combat COVID-19 led to a death toll higher than all of the country's northern European neighbors combined. By flirting with a strategy of so-called "herd immunity," decades of reverence for the Swedish model of common sense and social protection has steadily turned from doubt to outright disdain.
After the baggage carousel and two successive cigarettes on the rain-and-wind swept platform (there is zero fluctuation in these regional weather conditions for eight months of the year), I ended up on a bus splashing its way closer to Sweden's forested and somber middle, towards a somber two-roomer my dad (Gunnar) calls home.
Ever worry about your country's reputation? Ever participated in sullying it? Arriving home prompted some fleeting guilt for having criticized the government's pandemic response in conversations with friends in France and articles I'd written in English. But as we rumbled northward on this crowded and humid regional bus, and as the sniffling and coughing multiplied, I verified that I was the sole mask-wearer on board. No, Sweden's laissez-faire strategy was a train wreck, and it was right to call it out.
"Sure, there's some international schadenfreude too, no doubt." Gunnar landed in his oversized brown armchair. "And," firing up his pipe, "Who can blame them. Passing judgment from the sidelines is always risky business."
We never had to make the impossible decisions.
I'd had that national reputation discussion a few weeks back, in another living room back in Paris. "Fucking easy for you to say!" Ryan, my former college roommate and a U.S. military vet, was barking at my computer screen, where I had cued up a 1972 clip of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme condemning the Vietnam War. From the other side, Ryan was making Gunnar's point. Sweden was at the height of its international standing in the 1970s, when students from all over the world were shipped to the freshly remodeled Stockholm suburbs to witness our welfare utopia. My father's generation had the luxury of being engaged, but not involved in, the troubles of the outside world.
Palme (center) marching in 1968 against the Vietnam War alongside North Korean officials — Photo: Wikipedia
"In a way," Gunnar continued, "we became the world's conscience… a humanitarian superpower, if you will. But we never had to make the impossible decisions — Vietnam, 9/11 — of an actual superpower."
That was then. Now Sweden faces its own war, on home turf, and needless casualties are piling up. That a new emergency law went into effect Sunday, granting the government the power to impose coronavirus-related curbs for the very first time, only highlighted how wrong-headed the government's policy has been until now. Of course, the undoing of our folkhem (welfare state) and Sweden's global influence started long before our government decided to bet on herd immunity. But there's no denying that the glory days left a stubborn residue of what was a very healthy self-imagery. Bidding farewell to father and fatherland, I wonder where we'll be once COVID-19 is behind us: What will it mean to be a Swede? How will it feel to be The Swede?