It’s the end of the world as we know it

For the first time in over twenty years, I will not be able to go home to the US for the summer. The last time this happened it was due to being a poor teacher on low hourly wages who was not paid during summer holidays. This time it’s due to COVID-19. While the rest of the world went on various forms of lockdown, here in Sweden things were a little different. Unlike our Nordic neighbors (Norway, Finland, and Denmark), we didn’t close our borders. Nor did we close everything down. Restaurants, cafés and bars remained open, as did essential services such as pharmacies, supermarkets, etc. Universities and high schools closed but daycare, elementary and middle schools remained open; some offered online schooling to students, some emailed course packets home for students to complete. I’m reminded of an REM song that was popular when I was in college, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.  Unlike the refrain, I think most of us don’t feel fine.

Getting used to working from home

I’ve been working from home since March 6th, when Folkhälsomyndigheten (that’s Swedish for Public Health Agency) recommended social distancing and that anyone who could work from home do so. At the time, I was freelancing as a copywriter for IKEA and was at their head office in Älmhult for project meetings. The first confirmed cases of the coronavirus were reported in Stockholm, which was where I would be returning later that day. Our state epidemologist, Anders Tegnell, or the Swedish version of Dr. Fauci, became a staple on Swedish TV. Every news channel interviewed him. Every day he held press conferences with more information for us on how we should handle the crisis. I’ve been a freelance copywriter for two years, so working from home hasn’t been that problematic for me. It’s what I did on a daily basis — though most days I worked from local cafés or co-working spaces. Nowadays, I am in the guest bedroom in my apartment, tapping away on my keyboard or taking part in meetings via Microsoft Teams. I’ve managed to finish some long overdue fiction writing projects. I’ve also gotten pretty damned good at baking no-knead bread.

No one thought it would be this serious

At first, most Swedes (myself included though I do not have Swedish citizenship, but permanent residency) assumed that the coronavirus would disappear in a few weeks. While I was in Älmhult, my project lead confirmed that we should all work from home until further notice. We were in a layout presentation when she told us the news. I remember thinking it seemed a little drastic for something that we’d initially been told was no worse than the flu. But later, as I sat on the train heading back to Stockholm, I began to wonder if maybe IKEA was right. It was better for us to be safe than sorry, especially since all of us had the capabilities to work from home. I mean, we all had laptops, could connect to the company servers, used Microsoft Teams nearly every day for project management and staying in touch with one another. We didn’t really need to be in the office every day as long as we could connect. Mostly, I didn’t want to get sick. Especially as I watched how so many people on the train that evening didn’t cover their mouths when they coughed or sneezed. For the first time in a very long time, I began to feel like a hypochondriac. I was reminded Contagion — especially the scenes that showed how Gwyneth Paltrow’s character contracted the virus that eventually killed her…if you haven’t seen the film, her death scene is pretty frightening.

Swedes waiting for a bus with lots of space between them.

Social distancing, Swedish style.

Doing it differently

Denmark and Norway shut down all schools for the remainder of the academic year. Finland soon followed suit. Sweden waited a few more weeks to close all universities, community colleges and high schools. My side hustle, teaching English classes at a local community college, disappeared. Now it’s May and, while we see reports from the US of anti-lockdown protests (read: Trump supporters and white supremacists), here in Sweden we’re getting used to social distancing — Hell, swedes were already experts at it since they are pretty stand-offish and like their personal space anyway — and the only thing most Swedes seem worried about is if they can go away for their summer holidays and how they’re going to celebrate Midsummer in June with social distancing in place. Otherwise, we’re getting used to being at home, having after-work drinks online with friends and colleagues, learning to appreciate time on our own. 

Caught with our pants down

Whenever I see reports of Americans complaining about not being able to go to Walmart/Target/whatever insert your favourite store, get their hair done, or some other nonsense, I ask myself, “Would they rather go shopping or stay alive?” I think the answer ought to be simple: stay alive. If every American had access to the same healthcare system we have in Sweden, I could almost understand the frustration at not having the usual freedom. But the US wasn’t even remotely prepared for this pandemic — the numbers of COVID-19 related deaths and lack of tests and PPE are proof enough. Most countries, Sweden included, were caught with their pants down when it came to the virus but the current administration in the US made the situation even worse by ignoring the virus and blaming Obama (despite the fact that Trump and his incompetent administration ignored the preparedness plan and dismantled the pandemic preparation team that Obama administration had in place).

The new normal

There’s no point in thinking this will be over by the summer. The CDC and the WHO (World Health Organization) believe there will be a second bout of COVID-19 in the autumn, coinciding with the normal flu season. We may as well accept that social distancing and (possibly) quarantining will be the new normal. What we need to do now is figure out how to live with it. It’s easy here in Sweden. Autumn is when we usually go into our cocooning mode since the days are shorter, darker and colder. But for Americans it will be harder. For those of us who are introverts or bookworms, we’ll get through this a little easier than others. But even for us, it’ll be difficult if we don’t have other hobbies to get us through it. So take this time to appreciate whatever you’ve learned to enjoy from social distancing and keep practicing it. 

This is the new normal. 

We may as well lean to live with it.

 

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