Greetings from the motherland.
Sweden, the ancestral home to many Minnesotans, is also currently the epicenter of a deeply controversial response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
If you’re not up to speed on what’s happening in Sweden these days, I can sum it up briefly: compared with the rest of the world, not much. Sweden’s response can be broadly characterized as lagom, an oft-used term describing the Swedish inclination toward moderation.
Sweden’s “binding guidelines,” are largely unenforceable by law. Some reflect common sense: Stay home if you’re sick, over 70, or in an at-risk group. Wash your hands. Don’t travel unnecessarily.
Others leave you underwhelmed: Keep groups to under 50 people. Eat at a cafe, but don’t stand at a bar. Children under 16 should stay in the classroom, but commence e-learning for everyone else.
It wasn’t until April that healthy people were even first advised to “keep a distance” from each other. Lagom, indeed.
The Swedish fight against COVID-19 relies heavily on the trust culture between the people and the state. Couple that with some general (but often vague) guidelines from the Public Health Agency. Finally, add some emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to use his or her own judgment. Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist, says much of Sweden’s response is based on a long history of respecting the free will of individuals.
That’s why I’m betting the following letter came as a real surprise to the parents who received it:
“The healthy children who do not come to school are breaking the law, and in the case of a long period of invalid absence, you will be called to a meeting with the principal, after which social services may be contacted.”
This recently went out to parents at Pilänskolan school in Landskrona. Some had opted to keep their children home because of obvious safety concerns regarding COVID-19. Principal Maria Sjöstedt acknowledged their concerns, but reiterated her position that all healthy children should be present in school.
While Swedes are encouraged to use their individual sense of moral responsibility (folkvett), apparently there are limits to this, especially if your moral responsibility prompts you to socially distance with your kids at home. Put bluntly by Anna Ericsson (Head of Operations at the Education Administration in Landskrona): “It’s OK to have opinions, but you have to trust the authorities and not make your own decisions.”
Perhaps most troubling is the fact that parents seem to have little authority over the final decision as to whether or not their children can legally socially-distance at home. According to the National Agency for Education: “It is the principal who decides whether there are grounds for granting leave ... the legislature has judged that they have the best knowledge of the situation of the individual pupils.”
The Swedish argument to keep schools open focuses on the negative effects of the loss of key workers if parents must stay home with their children. But you don’t have to look very far to see how other countries deal with this very issue (British key workers can send their kids to school). Given the availability of plausible solutions that could help minimize the viral spread, one wonders why Swedish leadership is so eager to subvert their own commitment to the freedom of the individual.
Are individuals truly encouraged to weigh risks and benefits for themselves, and use common sense to determine their actions? Apparently not if it involves making judgments about their children’s health and safety as it pertains to school attendance.
In the middle of a pandemic, should the principal’s “best knowledge” about a student supersede the values and beliefs of the student’s parents? You don’t even need to be a parent yourself in order to know the answer to that question.
I have an expat friend currently lawyering up for the sake of keeping her kids at home. If mine were of school age, I think it’s very possible that we would be heading for the airport right about now.
For all the value that Sweden places on having a society composed of morally free and responsible individuals, there is a disconcertingly authoritarian streak to the policies the government is willing to implement in theory, and now in practice.
Allyson Plumberg, a former resident of Minneapolis, is a speech-language pathologist in Lund, Sweden.