11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown

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11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown
People eat in a restaurant on March 27, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden, during the coronavirus outbreak.JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images
  • With Sweden's unusual coronavirus response, the country did not impose a compulsory lockdown, instead trusting people to socially distance themselves.
  • Eleven people living there told us what their daily lives were like, from changing their commutes to still eating in restaurants.
  • They say their lives are not normal and that they are making changes to reduce the spread of the virus. But many are continuing habits like going to the gym and cafes, which is impossible in other countries.
  • Experts debate Sweden's strategy as its death toll soars above neighbors. But it is still lower than many locked-down countries, and Swedes are mostly happy with the plan.
  • Some people who are new to the country say they're more skeptical and are taking more extreme steps than many locals.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Mazdak Dorosti is no longer taking the metro to get to his banking job across Stockholm and is now cycling instead. But on his new, virus-adapted commute, he sees restaurants and coffee shops filled with people, sitting close together.

It's a scene that has become almost unthinkable for many millions of people in other countries as the coronavirus spreads and prompts seismic changes to everyday life.

But Sweden refused to lock down to try slow the spread of the virus. It is instead relying on people to follow guidelines without closures or much compulsion.

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Shops, restaurants, bars, parks and elementary schools are open. People are advised to keep apart, to work from home if possible, to stay inside if aged over 70, and to avoid unnecessary travel.

11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown
People enjoy warm and spring-like weather during the coronavirus outbreak in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 22, 2020.ANDERS WIKLUND/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

The only hard restrictions include a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. Bars and restaurants may only serve seated customers, with no standing to reduce crowding. Visits to nursing homes are forbidden.

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For Dorosti, some aspects of life have changed. His company has dividing workers into multiple offices and encouraging others to work from home. He tries to stay in his neighborhood on weekends.

But other parts continue: He and his colleagues sometimes eat lunch in restaurants, and he can still get coffee, even if he's trying to minimize his trips.

It's a situation mirrored across Sweden.

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Taking steps to distance, but normal life continues

Asli Tamer Vestlund, who has lived in a Stockholm suburb for four years after moving from the UK, told Business Insider that her family is using public transport less, seeing fewer friends, and ordering takeaway more. But they are continuing with lots of their usual activities.

"We spend more time in the forest and outdoor spaces as a family than indoor places. But our kids still go to swimming lessons. I go for pedicures and manicures, we go to the hairdresser etc. We try to be careful but don't take it to the extreme."

Karin Beland Lindahl, an associate professor at Luleå University of Technology, lives close to the Arctic Circle. There is no immediate threat there from the virus, which is most active in the south of the country where most Swedish people live. However, she expects it to take hold even in the north eventually.

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11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown
People queue up outside the Swedish government-owned store Systembolaget to buy alcohol on April 25 2020.JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Lindahl is working from home, since university campuses are closed. She celebrated her father's 80th birthday over Zoom. "But otherwise life in our community is running in many ways normally: We go shopping, you can go out to lunch."

Her 18-year-old son Jakob said his school teaching online had been the biggest change. He's avoiding the gym, "but we still have football training as normal, I go to my friend's houses, I go to the supermarket as usual."

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Cathy Xiao Chen, who has lived in the city of Uppsala for seven years and helps lead a coworking space, said she still visits his office every day but has added new safety steps.

"My working hours have decreased," she said, "but I continue to go to the office every day to scan and email."

"My daily routine now is to sleep in, take the train in the middle of the day and work late to avoid traveling when there are many others." She orders delivery so restaurants "can stay in business."

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Ylva Beland, a medicine student at Umeå University, said she's trying to reduce the number of people she sees and is not visiting her grandparents. She said: "I do meet my friends and study together and eat together, and I am still teaching gymnastics."

11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown
People sit and drink outside in Stockholm on April 22, 2020.ANDERS WIKLUND/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

University teaching is online, but students can still use the library. "I am still in the gym three times a week," she said, "but people aren't going out to pubs and restaurants as much, even though we don't have a law against it."

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"People think Sweden is living as normal. We live more normal than most countries, but it's really not as life is normal."

Some at-risk people are taking further steps. Magnus Sean Clarke, who lives in Stockholm, has asthma, and said he is cycling and showering more and reducing his number of grocery trips and visits with friends. His company has staff working from home, and the soccer games he referees have been cancelled.

11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown
The virus has so far taken more of a hold in Stockholm, the capital, and other parts of southern Sweden.Google Maps/Business Insider

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But he said he has started to return to the gym, and sometimes visits a cafe, which he says has been "important for my mental well being, as this allows me to interact with people and spend some time on self-reflection."

Sweden's strategy is controversial, but Swedes are largely happy

Katarina Eckerberg, a political science professor at Umeå University in the north of the country, told Business Insider that the suggestion things are unchanged in Sweden during the outbreak is a "misunderstanding."

She said most people are changing their habits in some way, rather than switching to an entirely new way of living. Many are now meeting friends outdoors more, she said, "which is quite nice."

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Eckerberg said she has been to restaurants twice during the outbreak. "Both times we were almost alone there, and the restaurants thanked us for coming."

Experts are conflicted over Sweden's strategy. People are still in work, and some of the ill-effects of lockdowns seen elsewhere have been minimized. But the country's death toll is significantly higher than its neighbors, which introduced harsher restrictions.

Sweden, with its population of over 10 million, has more than 2,500 deaths. Per capita, that's almost six times higher than Norway and more than three times higher than Denmark. It is, however, still significantly lower than Europe's worst-hit countries.

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Polls in Sweden show the strategy is popular: more than 80% of people there support the approach.

11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown
People enjoyed the warm spring weather in Stockholm on April 21, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images


Every Swedish person Business Insider spoke to said that they and those around them are largely happy, citing the tendency of Swedes to trust and follow both experts and government officials.

Those originally from other countries expressed more concern.

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People new to Sweden say they're taking more steps

Jules Bevis, a UK national living in Stockholm, said that people treat her strangely for taking the virus more seriously than the government advice.

"The fact that I still get strange looks for wearing a mask is like living in a time warp – it makes me think: 'What bubble is this country in?'"

She said she moved house because her roommate was ignoring distancing recommendations, even when her son had a fever and a cough.

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But overall, she said, "life hasn't changed much, other than people annoying me [by] telling me to go out all the time because it's not healthy to stay indoors."

Muhammad Haseeb Asif, a Pakistani master's student in Stockholm, said he self-isolating, only going outside for early morning walks and groceries.

"It seems people are following quarantine protocol according to their home countries and trying to stay home and not going out a lot, contrary to the open protocol in Stockholm," he said.

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11 people in Sweden told us what it's like living in one of the few countries with no compulsory coronavirus lockdown
People enjoy the sunny weather in early April in Stockholm without following authorities' coronavirus social distancing guidelines.Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency / Reuters

Fabio De Ferrari, a PhD student at Stockholm's KTH Royal Institute of Technology, went back home to Italy in March because he didn't want to be locked down in Sweden.

He said that he struggled to find Swedish people who were skeptical of their government's approach.

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"Talking to locals, the impression that no one really wanted to talk about COVID-19, and if I were to raise any concern, the answer would always be the same: 'There is no need to scare people: if the government doesn't enforce social distancing it means that there is no need for it. Let's just try to keep everything as normal as possible.'"

But even as people in Sweden live more normally than millions elsewhere, there have been unavoidable changes to people's lives.

Dorosti founded the Stockholm Pub Crawl five years ago. But he's now had to pause it because people have stopped coming to the city. "We don't have any tourists right now."

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And Jakob Beland said his prom isn't going ahead and his school graduation might not take place.

"It's all sad, but there's not much you can do about it really."

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