By Giorgia Bracelli

For decades, Sweden has been hailed by observers around the world as a shining example of what a well-functioning society should look like. Sweden ranks above average in all dimensions of the OECD Better Life Index: environmental quality, civic engagement, education and skills, work-life balance, health status, subjective well-being, income and wealth, jobs and earnings, housing, personal safety, and social connections. In 2016, 2018 and again in 2019, Sweden was ranked the most reputable country in the world by Forbes – and Swedes are consistently described as some of the world’s happiest people. 

The country’s priority in recent years has not been simply to keep its citizens happy at home – it has also embarked on an international propagandistic mission, to show people all over the world why Sweden is so wonderful, and what foreign citizens are missing out on by not being there. This carefully crafted narrative, which has been jointly developed by the Swedish Institute, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Business Sweden, and the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation, is a conscious image-shaping exercise, which aims to strengthen the nation’s brand and attract positive international attention and recognition.

This strategy has been a tremendous success. Over the past few years, the country has revelled in its overwhelmingly positive global image, whilst myriads of international observers have tried to uncover the secret to Swedish exceptionalism. The authors of the World Happiness Report concluded that whilst there may not be one key ingredient behind the Nordic country’s extraordinary performance, a good starting point is the existence of state institutions that  “are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens in various adversities”.

Then, just as it all seemed like smooth sailing for Sweden, one such adversity suddenly appeared on the horizon – the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last March, when most of the world was closing down to try and contain the spread of coronavirus, Sweden remained open and chose not to impose a national lockdown. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Sweden has largely relied on voluntary social distancing guidelines, along with bans on large gatherings, restrictions on care home visits and a shift to table-only service in bars and restaurants. And whilst most Swedes were able to retain a sense of ‘normality’, the death toll reached vertiginous heights. As of February 2021, over 12,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the country – that’s over 10,000 more than in neighbouring Norway and Finland combined. 

Sweden’s handling of the crisis has been subject to intense international scrutiny, and two staunchly opposed schools of thought have emerged: the first praises Sweden’s “it’s a marathon not a sprint” approach to confronting the pandemic, which focuses on generating widespread public understanding of the need for long-term collective action. The second, more critical, opinion describes Sweden’s approach as a reckless and dangerous gamble, with thousands of lives at stake. This narrative has gained a lot of traction in many of the countries that have suffered high death tolls despite their stringent lockdown restrictions, such as Italy, France and the United States. International observers who subscribe to the second school of thought have led to the depiction of Sweden as a pariah – a role previously alien to the so-called Nordic paradise. However, negative media portrayals are only one side of the coin.

It may be too early to say whether COVID-19 will have a long-standing impact on nation brands, and international perceptions of countries’ reputations. Nonetheless, some initial findings may indicate that reputations are more stable than previously imagined, and may even be able to weather storms of the magnitude of a global pandemic and its consequences. The Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index (NBI) 2020, which aimed to assess international perceptions of different countries’ handlings of health crises such as COVID-19, ranked Sweden 15th out of 50 countries regarding health crises management, and 10th out of 50 regarding how comfortable travellers are with taking a trip there over the next five years. These results appear to demonstrate that whilst international media coverage can have an impact on public perceptions, a nation’s reputation remains remarkably sturdy over time, and is not so easily swayed by political developments. 

There are things that work in Sweden, and things that don’t – just like in any other country. The pandemic shone a grim light on the inadequate coordination of a fragmented and decentralised health and social care sector. More specifically, it exposed an array of unresolved structural factors related to the organisation of the care of older people, among which we find the worryingly low numbers of medical professionals in the sector, as well as an inadequately educated workforce. Whilst it is unlikely these revelations will hamper Sweden’s impressive consistency at the top of a host of global rankings and indexes, they may be enough to lead to a country-wide reckoning of the realities faced by all citizens, particularly those left behind by narratives of innovation and progress. The Swedish handling of the COVID-19 pandemic should become much more than a topic of international scrutiny, or a stain on the country’s previously impeccable reputation: it should be an opportunity for introspection and improvement, helping Sweden edge ever so slightly closer to making that utopian ideal a reality.

The COVID-19 crisis did not lift the veil on the myth of Swedish utopia, because there was no Swedish utopia to begin with. No panacea, no secret ingredient. The utopian view says very little about Sweden: it is instead more a reflection of the rest of the world. When a country is hailed as an exceptional model, simply because it provides basic human rights, strives for gender equality, prioritises environmental action, and cares for its citizens, it lays bare how utopia really does lie in the eye of the beholder, rather than in the reality of the country itself.

By Giorgia Bracelli

Artwork: Maria Ekstrand

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