Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Reflections – Pandemic Possibilities in Sweden – From a Room with a View
Gabriella Wulff, Centre for Consumption Research (CFK), Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI), Sweden.
Before entering into a discussion of how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing social life across the world, I first want to make a clarification that I regard the question and the answer as twofold. First, the pandemic itself has changed our social life, in terms of an increased number of people in need of healthcare to a greater extent than a normal flu or cold, and we have also seen that the mortality rates are higher due to the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, to a certain extent there has been more people staying home sick, meaning fewer people working to uphold the society. Hence, there has been a change in societal life as fewer people are engaged in their everyday work and more resources are needed in the healthcare sector.
However, and this is the second part of the impact, I argue that the largest change of social life is dependent on the various responses to the pandemic by the governments around the world, as well as by organisations and citizens. In this sense, the impact on social life varies greatly depending on the actions taken. A general response from, for example European country leaders, have been to choose a path of state of emergency and isolation of the entire population. As people were not allowed to leave their homes for errands other than to visit pharmacies and grocery stores, the impact of such measures can be expected to have been immense. Another strategy that several governments have implemented is the closing down of schools and pre-schools. In general, such responses led to vast implications for social life, where isolation forced people to stay at home with potential side effects such as depression, less healthy lifestyles, and a risk of an increased amount of domestic violence. The closing down of schools will most likely have negative effects on the schooling of the affected students, which in turn can have long-term consequences for the countries and for the next generation. With a focus primarily on the responses to the spread of COVID-19 and the consequences of such, we can see how several governments acted with resolution to prevent the spreading of COVID-19, for example through isolation, but with less reflection as to the consequences for social life of such measures.
In contrast, there are exceptions such as Sweden, which has chosen another path. For example, the Swedish government decided to keep its schools and pre-schools open, while other countries closed all schools down. The reason was that many employees in the health care sector have children in the age span affected by closing down of schools. At an aggregated level, this meant that the level of health care service could be maintained at the highest possible level. Moreover, the strategy addressed the question of flattening the curve from another viewpoint – it was not only about keeping the level of infected people low, it was also about keeping the level of available healthcare service high. The strategy had other side-effects, as it also allowed people in other sectors to continue engaging in working life. Besides, the measure was a way to prevent elderly people from being put at risk, as those otherwise might have been called in to babysit children whilst parents were still at work. When scaled up, this meant that Sweden has had greater possibilities to keep the economy afloat, even in a time of crisis. This way, the Swedish government’s early responses to the spread of COVID-19 in Sweden potentially came with less impact on social life for the country’s habitants than for those in other countries.
However, in Sweden we have also seen impacts on social life due to the spread of COVID-19, but on a more societal level. Although there was never any national prohibition as to working at one’s workspace, there has been a recommendation for organisations, companies, and universities to allow distance working for their employees. Initially this recommendation was specifically targeted at the habitants of Stockholm. Nevertheless, many companies, universities, and public organisations followed the recommendations, and allowed their employees to work from home. In practice, this meant that many Swedish employees have been working on a distance basis since March 2020. The recommendation does however open up the possibility – when justified – of entering the workplace and/or other common spaces. In this way, the citizens have been provided with a certain degree of freedom. Also restaurants and shops have been kept open, which additionally led to a feeling of freedom and responsibility at an individual level. The rationale was that as long as people are healthy, keep a distance, and avoid crowding, there is no risk of spreading the virus, and that a closing down of such functions would do more harm than it would benefit society at a whole. With this came an assumption of trusting individuals to stay at home if they had any symptoms of a cold or flu. Nevertheless, the streets of Sweden were (and still are) emptier, as many people worked from home, and on an individual level chose to avoid large gatherings and public transport. Hence, the change inn social life due to the spread of COVID-19 in Sweden can be seen both as the response of the political leaders, and in the ways that the Swedish people acted and took on an individual sense of responsibility to reduce the spread of the virus, illustrated tendencies towards self-restraint.
Furthermore, in Sweden, as in other countries, the responses to the spread of COVID-19 have been dynamic and have been changing over time. For example, in late March the government decided that lower and upper secondary schools, colleges, and universities would shift towards distance learning instead of classroom teaching – a decision that was revised in mid-June, when it was decided for a re-opening of schools for the Autumn semester. Another decision taken in late March was to prohibit gatherings of more than 50 persons, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus further. The prohibition was, however, widely discussed, as this decision led to negative impacts on the sports and cultural sectors in particular, and it was subject of a revised decision during summer 2020.
The consequences of the virus on social life are not as much a question of the virus itself, but rather a question of the measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus. Besides the points highlighted above, there is also an aspect of environmental consequences worth mentioning as an important aspect of social life. Sustainability was a key question discussed in the pre-COVID-19 period, where the aim was to sustain for the coming generations the possibility of living a decent life. From such a viewpoint, COVID-19 can be said – at least for a short-time period – to have positive side-effects, such as reduced emissions due to less flights between countries and continents, and a reduced level of consumption of non-essential products and services. The crisis then comes with opportunities both to measure the impact of reduced flying and consumer spending during this specific time, as well as to challenge our current way of organising society. For example, being forced to use technology for meetings spurs IT-development, and enables us to try new ways of meeting each other at a much more widespread level. The crisis can thus be an opportunity to make a more profound shift towards accounting for social, environmental, and economic aspects in building society in a more sustainable way.
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