Sweden counts on individual behavior to win coronavirus fight. It’s a risky strategy

Sweden counts on individual behavior to win coronavirus fight. It’s a risky strategy
Sweden, unlike its neighbors, has not imposed a lockdown on its people. (AFP)
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Updated 21 April 2020

Sweden counts on individual behavior to win coronavirus fight. It’s a risky strategy

Sweden counts on individual behavior to win coronavirus fight. It’s a risky strategy
  • Scandinavian country’s policy depends largely on responsible behavior rather than lockdowns on public life
  • Authorities encourage people to get their daily exercise, schools remain open and playgrounds are still busy

STOCKHOLM: France has banned daytime jogging. Britons have been told not to sunbathe. Germany has barred people from forming groups of three or more in public.

In recent weeks, European democracies have curbed a range of personal liberties as they try to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

All except for one: Sweden. In the capital of Scandinavia’s biggest economy, people are still free to socialize. In fact, they are encouraged to get out, at least to exercise. Thus, on a recent sunny day, Stockholm’s King's Garden park was full of people taking selfies.

Schools remain open and playgrounds are busy. Sweden’s strategy is largely built on recommendations rather than legally binding restrictions. Stockholm is quieter than usual, but it is far from a ghost town.

“I’m grateful that we are trusted to take responsibility ourselves instead of being put in quarantine like the people of southern Europe,” Gunnel Sjögren, a retired administrator, told Arab News as she soaked up the afternoon sun with a friend in the park.

 

“It seems to me that most people are acting responsibly.”

At her gym, visitors are few and disinfection of equipment is rigorous, Sjögren said.

She continues to eat out but has started wearing gloves when taking the bus or shopping for groceries.

Johan Giesecke, an epidemiologist who now advises the World Health Organization (WHO), says Swedes will make the right choice.

“People aren’t stupid. If you pass by Stureplan (a popular Stockholm nightspot) at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, it looks like a nuclear disaster site,” he told Arab News.

“This is not because there are police or a threat of fines or prison. It’s because people understand that they should stay at home.”

INNUMBERS

56% - Swedes with high degree of trust in people.

40% - Share of single-person households.

50 - Public gatherings above which are banned.

10 million - Sweden’s population.

Giesecke said different countries are adopting methods because it is difficult to scientifically assess the efficacy of the precautionary measures being enforced.

“In many countries, politicians want to do something forceful, to show that they are taking action,” he said.

“In Sweden, the reasoning is: If we don’t know that it works, why should we close schools?”

Indeed, Sweden and Iceland are the only two countries in Europe to have bucked the trend of school closures, although all high schools and universities have switched to remote teaching.

Facemasks are still a rare sight in Stockholm. Like in the rest of the world, “social distancing” has become a mantra, but to what extent it is being practiced is open to question.

With Stockholm enjoying some unusually warm days of late, business has been good for cafes that have outdoor seating.

Images of crowded terraces have surfaced in the press and on social media, suggesting that Swedes’ own behavior may not be the most effective way to slow the rate of infection.

Last week, Stefan Löfven, the Swedish prime minister, warned that restaurants that failed to prevent crowding could be closed.

Public gatherings of more than 50 are currently banned, and only seated guests are allowed in restaurants and bars.

As of Sunday, 899 people had died from COVID-19 in Sweden, a country of 10 million people.

The government’s bigger concern is that infections have spread to as many as a third of retirement homes in Stockholm county, the area worst affected.

Swedes over the age of 70 have been advised to avoid social contacts, while visits to facilities for the elderly have been banned.

Those who can work from home are being encouraged by the government to do so and all citizens have been advised to avoid non-essential travel.

 

Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s approach to dealing with the pandemic has attracted the attention of the world.

A French newspaper has mocked Sweden for perceiving itself as “a kingdom of invincible Vikings.”

US President Donald Trump piled on the pressure, saying: “Sweden did that, the herd, they call it the herd. Sweden’s suffering very, very badly.”

Lars Trädgårh, a social historian, said Sweden’s constitution, demographics and national psyche could explain why it was an outlier on the coronavirus issue.

For one thing, the government is constitutionally prohibited from interfering in the affairs of administrative authorities, including the public health agency.

For another, in global surveys of attitudes, Sweden and other Nordic countries stand out when it comes to trust in authorities.




Swedes enjoy the cherry blossoms in the capital, Stockholm. (Photo by Cajsa Wikström)

This trust is noticeable during the current coronavirus crisis, according to Trädgårh.

In a nationwide survey by Novus, a major polling company, 76 percent of respondents expressed “very high or fairly high” confidence in the Swedish public health agency’s handling of the outbreak.

At the same time, the governing party, the Social Democrats, has experienced a surge in polls.

“What others might view as a path to collective suicide, we see as a lot of sense,” Trädgårh said.

Moreover, he points out, Sweden is sparsely populated, with Stockholm its only metropolitan area.

The city has another natural advantage, with the world’s largest percentage of single households.

“We’ve fostered social distancing for a long time,” Trädgårh said.

 

“For hundreds of years we’ve had small families, combined with strong autonomy between family members.

“The elderly live by themselves or in retirement homes. In a way, we were self-isolated already before the corona outbreak.”

None of this is to say all Swedes approve of the official coronavirus policy.

The argument that a long-drawn-out lockdown would have major economic implications, potentially harming future health care by depriving the state of tax revenue, has stirred controversy.

Critics, who include Björn Olsen, professor of infectious diseases at Uppsala University, accuse the state of playing with human lives.

In an interview with Kvartal, a Swedish magazine, Olsen put it this way: “It’s not enough to appeal to people’s consciences and say that we should all think before we do this or that.

In Sweden, the reasoning is: If we don’t know that it works, why should we close the schools?

Johan Giesecke, an epidemiologist who now advises the World Health Organization (WHO)

“We are still a bunch of individualists and groups are still gathering. Ban it — now — and shut down as much as you can.”

The polarized public discourse is, in some ways, a reflection of the exigencies of the situation.

Even without lockdowns, the economy has been severely damaged. Tens of thousands of Swedes, mostly in the hospitality sector, have lost their jobs or received lay-off notices.

As of Monday, 25,350 people in Sweden had registered for the week with the public employment agency - higher than figures for any single week during the 2008 global financial crisis.

Peter Thulinsson, who works in the construction business, says he intends to patronize the local restaurant while maintaining social distancing - for as long as it stays open.

“We have to remember that there will be life after coronavirus. If we want to have restaurants in business after this period, we have to support them now,” he told Arab News.

“It’s not only about our physical health. There’s also the mental health aspect. We need something to live for.”


Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests
Updated 36 min 21 sec ago

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests
  • German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days
  • Two synagogues were attacked and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since violence erupted in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

BERLIN: Germany’s leading Jewish group on Thursday sharply condemned protests in front of a synagogue in the western city of Gelsenkirchen as “pure antisemitism.”
Several other German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days.
At least two synagogues were attacked, and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since the latest eruption of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany tweeted a video of dozens of protesters in Gelsenkirchen waving Palestinian and Turkish flags and yelling expletives about Jews.
“Jew hatred in the middle of Gelsenkirchen in front of the synagogue. The times in which Jews were cursed in the middle of the street should have long been over. This is pure antisemitism, nothing else!” the group tweeted.
The German government repeatedly condemned anti-Israeli and antisemitic attacks earlier this week and said that “the perpetrators must be found and held responsible and Jewish institutions must be protected thoroughly.”
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Funke Media Group that “there must be zero tolerance for attacks on synagogues in our country.”
“All of us are called on to make it very clear that we do not accept if Jews in Germany are made responsible for the events in the Middle East — neither in the streets nor on social media,” Maas added.
The protests in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday were dispersed by police, German news agency DPA reported, but authorities reported further incidents in other parts of the country.
Some cities which had hoisted Israeli flags in front of their city halls on Wednesday in remembrance of the start of German-Israeli diplomatic relations on May 12, 1965, reported that the flags were torn down and sometimes burned.
An Israeli flag in front of a city hall in the western town of Solingen was torn and burnt and two Israeli flags in Berlin were also torn down late Wednesday night.
On Tuesday night, police stopped 13 suspects in the western city of Muenster near a synagogue after an Israeli flag was burned there. In the western city of Bonn, police said several people damaged the entrance of a synagogue with stones and investigators found a burned flag as well. In nearby Duesseldorf, somebody burned garbage on top of a memorial for a former synagogue.
Several cities and states in Germany have since upped their security and raised police presence in front of Jewish institutions, dpa reported.
In Berlin, some 100 people also assembled for a pro-Israel rally on Wednesday night in front of the city’s landmark Brandenburg Gate waving Israeli flags and holding a banner saying “We stand with Israel — Now and Forever.”


Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr

Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr
Updated 27 min 9 sec ago

Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr

Muslims across Italy celebrate Eid Al-Fitr
  • Members of the Islamic community in Palermo, which numbers around 20,000, joined early-morning prayers at the Foro Italico, a vast open-air area facing the sea
  • Stewards from the community made sure that social distancing was maintained, with Sicily still recording a high number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases

ROME: Thousands of Muslims in Palermo gathered in the capital of Sicily’s waterfront to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr and pray for the victims in Palestine.

Several members of the Islamic community in Palermo, which counts around 20,000 members, joined early-morning prayers at the Foro Italico, a vast open-air area facing the sea.

Everyone was wearing a mask and carrying their own carpet. Stewards from the community made sure that social distancing was maintained, with Sicily still recording a high number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases.

Prayers were led by Mustafà Boulaalam, the imam of the mosque of Piazza Gran Cancelliere, which before 1998 was a Catholic church and was donated to the Islamic community by the late Cardinal of Palermo Salvatore Pappalardo. Imams from the city’s other mosques and Islamic centers also joined this moment of reflection.

The Mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando represented the city, and gave his best wishes to the Islamic community.

Orlando said: “In this moment we are all called to build fraternity in order to create peace and feel that we are children of one God. Unfortunately, this fraternity we all long for continues to be mortified by the deaths in the Mediterranean of migrants who try to reach Europe from North Africa but also from the bombs and blood that in these hours are tearing Palestine apart.”

He added: “We must all fight to defend life and pursue fraternity between individuals and peoples in the wake of peace.”

The mayor told Arab News: “Even this year Eid Al-Fitr is a feast for the entire city of Palermo and all of its citizens, not only for the Muslims who live and work here.”

Fr. Piero Magro read a message of participation from the Palermo Archbishop Corrado Lorefice, who was represented at the prayer by Biagio Conte, a lay missionary who since the late 1990s has run the “Missione di Speranza e Carità,” a charity in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Palermo.

“In our mission we have every day hundreds of Muslim brothers coming to seek for help. We try to do whatever we can to help them, especially in this particularly difficult time of the pandemic. Because we are all brothers and only if we are together we will overcome the hardship,” Conte told Arab News.

In Rome, only 1,000 were admitted for prayers in the grounds of the Great Mosque in the north of the Italian capital. 

The Islamic Cultural Center advised those over 70 and children to not attend. The center ordered everyone to bring their own disinfected Sajjada and to practice ablutions at home before reaching the mosque.

“It is so nice to be here again, all together, to pray in respect of the precautions. This Ramadan has been more normal than the one we had last year, when the pandemic reached its peak. At least we can go to the Islamic centers, and now we can celebrate,” Hussein Garoub, 20, a student at the La Sapienza University in Rome, told Arab News after the prayer.


Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid

Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid
Updated 13 May 2021

Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid

Protests over Glasgow immigration raid on Eid
  • 200 protesters in a largely Muslim part of Scotland's biggest city demonstrated as immigration officials raided a property on Eid al-Fitr’s first day
  • There was no immediate comment from the UK Home Office on who was targeted in the raid

GLASGOW: Around 200 protesters in a largely Muslim part of Scotland’s biggest city demonstrated as immigration officials raided a property on Thursday, the start of the festival of Eid Al-Fitr.
The raid occurred in the Glasgow constituency of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said she was “deeply concerned by this action by the Home Office, especially today in the heart of a community celebrating Eid.”
“My office is making urgent enquiries and stands ready to offer any necessary assistance to those detained,” she tweeted.
There was no immediate comment from the UK Home Office on who was targeted in the raid but Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, indicated they were Afghans.
“The same people who run from the British and American bombs put at the back of the van right now. And they are about to be deported,” he said.
“And it’s on Eid you know... the guys are not even allowed to pray. How do you do that in a democratic society? It’s a sad day.”
Watched by a large deployment of police, protesters sat on the road in front of the property and a crowd gathered around the Home Office vehicle, chanting “Leave our neighbors, let them go” and “Cops go home.”
The three-day festival of Eid marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. It is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family feasts and shopping.
“I’d ask Christians to reflect on what it would feel like to have your house raided on Christmas Day,” said Tom, a neighbor who joined the protest.


Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban

Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban
Updated 13 May 2021

Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban

Afghan president says Pakistan will not support return of Taliban
  • Ghani’s remarks come days after the Pakistan army chief visits Kabul despite stalled negotiations
  • Ties between Kabul and Islamabad have been historically tense but have soured even more in the past 20 years

KABUL: Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said on Thursday that Pakistan, which Kabul has long seen as a supporter of the Taliban, is not in favor of the group’s return to power in his war-battered country.

Concerns are mounting among the current Afghan administration because the complete US troop withdrawal, expected by September, could leave the country vulnerable to a Taliban takeover 20 years after it was ousted from power in a US-led invasion.

Ghani’s remarks came days after a visit from Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, to Kabul.

“Pakistan’s army, in utter clarity, announced that the revival of Islamic Emirate is not in Pakistan’s national interest,” Ghani said in a televised speech after Eid Al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of Ramadan.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was the country’s name during Taliban rule from 1996-2001.

“Afghanistan’s peace and stability means peace and stability in the region,” the president said, adding the Pakistani general expressed his support for “the republic” — which is understood as Ghani’s government.

The Pakistani military did not immediately comment on Ghani’s statement. Its spokesperson also was not available when contacted by Arab News.

Ties between Kabul and Islamabad have been historically tense but have soured even more in the past 20 years. The Afghan government accused Pakistan of backing the Taliban which has been fighting to drive foreign troops out of the country and return to power.

While Pakistan has denied supporting the Taliban, its influence has been crucial in persuading the militants to join ongoing US-sponsored negotiations for a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan.

Gen. Bajwa’s visit to Kabul came as the negotiations have stalled for months and violent attacks in Afghanistan have been on the rise since the US missed a May 1 deadline to withdraw its soldiers under last year’s agreement between Washington and the Taliban.

“Pakistan is also not keen on seeing an extremist ideology taking root in Afghanistan. It represents a risk for the generals and Pakistan’s democracy as well,” Toreq Farhadi, a former adviser to the Afghan government, told Arab News.

“Pakistan wants a political settlement in Afghanistan where Taliban can be part of the governing structure and opposes a total takeover of power by the Taliban.”


Muslims around the world mark Eid al Fitr

Muslims around the world mark Eid al Fitr
Updated 13 May 2021

Muslims around the world mark Eid al Fitr

Muslims around the world mark Eid al Fitr
  • For the second year Muslims celebrations are being impacted by COVID-19 restictions
  • In Gaza Muslims marked Eid despite the escalating violence with Israel

DUBAI: Millions of Muslims around the world performed Eid Al-Fitr prayers on Thursday with varying degrees of restrictions imposed because of COVID-19 and civil unrest.

Eid Al-Fitr marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from any form of food – liquid or solid – as well as not smoking during daylight hours.

There are some similarities in the way Muslims celebrate around the world, with prayers and where possible with family and friends.

In Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Muslims bake cakes, go on picnics and organize barbecues in forests.

In Gaza, Muslims still prayed together despite intense fighting with Israel.

 

 

And in China - where the government has been facing intense criticism for its treatment of minority Muslims - Beijing's Muslim community gathered for Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Niujie Mosque - the capital city's biggest and oldest mosque.

In Afghanistan a three-day ceasefire has been agreed by the warring Taliban and Afghan forces, which came into force on Thursday.

Indonesia – the world’s biggest Muslim majority nation – has for a second year been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.  

 

 

Many mosques have had to be closed and restrictions on movements have impacted family reunions.

Even in non-Islamic countries, Muslims will attend local mosques to pray - but Thursday is normal working day and some will book the time off work to be with family - COVID–19 restrictions allowing.

For more images of Muslims welcoming Eid Al-Fitr click here.