Irishman in Sweden: Covid-19 testing is not widespread here
'Striking up small talk with a stranger on Stockholm would be regarded as strange at the best of times'
Jack Ryan: 'The vast majority of Swedes are following the recommendations for social distancing'
Jack Ryan, from Ratoath in Co Meath, lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his partner Niklas. He runs coffee roastery Muttley & Jack’s. While much of Europe went into lockdown at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Sweden has relied mainly on milder, voluntary measures to slow the spread, softening the blow to the economy. But the death toll of more than 4,500 people in Sweden is many times higher than that of Norway, Denmark and Finland combined.
How long have you lived in Stockholm?
Almost 12 years now. I left to work on a project with Greenpeace in Sweden. The plan was for just a year but watching the Irish economy unravel in 2008 nudged me to extend for another year, and then another.
How has Sweden dealt with coronavirus?
Politicians here have taken more of a back seat, and allowed the experts to step forward and steer the response to the coronavirus. The health service is certainly under extreme pressure, but it’s coping. A convention centre in Stockholm was transformed into a temporary hospital back in March with beds for 600 patients, but so far this facility hasn’t been needed.
The authorities have chosen not to enforce a full societal lockdown allowing shops, hairdressers, cafes and primary schools to remain open. Social distancing is required in all businesses and a number of businesses found not to be enforcing social distancing have been forced to close.
The vast majority of Swedes are following the recommendations for social distancing, working from home and not travelling outside their local area. Mobile phone data from the Easter holidays showed a 94 per cent reduction in travel from Stockholm to Gotland (an island in the Baltic sea that is a travel favourite for Stockholmers) for 2020 compared with 2019.
In my opinion, the largest failure here has been not managing to keep the virus out of care homes for the elderly. Staff working in these facilities are generally on hourly pay with little protection against lost working hours. This has meant that many care workers went to work when they should have stayed at home. Deaths in elderly care homes is a large reason why Sweden’s fatalities statistics are high.
How has Covid-19 affected you?
I socialise less these days, though I do meet friends for a walk sometimes. My parents have discovered FaceTime and we chat a lot more than before the pandemic. Even though we’re not on a strict lockdown here, I do enjoy the weekly Zoom quiz with the family back in Ireland. I’ve been worried for my sister who works as a nurse. She is almost fully recovered from Covid-19 at the time of writing.
Are there any changes in Stockholm and what are they?
There are, though less obvious than Dublin and other European cities. Use of public transport has dropped as people stay at home and leave the trains and buses for essential workers. The suburbs, which are usually very quiet during the week, have more people out and about and local shops seem to be having a lift. The city centre is very quiet, some streets that are usually bustling with life have proverbial tumbleweed blowing along them.
What does your day look like now?
Not hugely different than pre-coronavirus. I work alone at the coffee roastery, travelling there by car as it’s on an island that is difficult to access on public transport.
How has the current situation made a difference to your business?
The wholesale side of the business dropped off a cliff in March and April. That was worrying, though it’s beginning to slowly pick up again now. Some tour groups from abroad had booked in for workshops and these were cancelled. More positively, people stuck at home found the Muttley & Jack’s website and we’ve had far more online orders than usual these past months.
People here are experts at social distancing, more than 50 per cent of households in Stockholm are single person
Are you afraid?
Not for myself, but I do have people in my life that are in high risk groups and I’m fearful for them.
Is there testing for Covid-19?
Testing is not very widespread here. Only people ill enough to be hospitalised are currently tested. There are research projects conducting tests for both Covid-19 and antibodies with randomly selected members of the public.
What is the food situation in Stockholm?
There was some panic buying back in March and supermarkets ran out of pasta, rice and frozen vegetables, but it didn’t take long for shops to replenish their shelves. Online grocery shopping has rocketed and some online retailers in Stockholm have a three week waiting list for deliveries. People in risk groups have certain times of the day when supermarkets are open only for them.
Does being Irish count there at the moment?
Within the Irish community it does. I’ve had a lot of support from Irish people here buying coffee from us, both for themselves and to give as gifts. I’m very grateful for that.
How are people in Sweden staying okay?
They are following the advice of the experts, getting exercise outdoors, helping each other with grocery shopping. People here are experts at social distancing, more than 50 per cent of households in Stockholm are single person dwellings and striking up small talk with a stranger would be regarded as strange at the best of times.
Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?
While I’m happy to be in Sweden, where we live with voluntary restrictions and a lighter lockdown, I do miss my family. The current state of international travel as it is, my family have never felt so far away.
If you would like to share your experience of how Covid-19 is affecting you there, email Irish Times Abroad at firstname.lastname@example.org