The pandemic has wreaked havoc among migrant communities in Sweden. This tragic circumstance, may, however, begin to address the obvious inequality within societies.
Sweden’s coronavirus strategy is once again under intense scrutiny after the country’s top health authority this week stopped daily press briefings on the country’s Covid-19 infection rate and death toll.
The country’s high death rate amongst its migrant population and its elderly has many questioning whether the government has done enough to protect its most vulnerable.
Out of the first fifteen reported Covid-19 deaths in Sweden, nine were from the Somali community, explains Rashid Musa, an activist in Stockholm. This immediately raised eyebrows.
Rashid believes that several damaging narratives emerged primarily from Sweden’s authorities, the media and right-wing politicians which may have contributed to the worsening situation.
“They said many in the Somali community can’t read or write that they are un-integrated and don’t follow instructions from the authorities,” Musa tells TRT World.
“The situation affecting the Somali community has nothing to do with integration. This is a matter of public health and inequality within society,” added Musa.
Pandemic exposes existing inequalities
Government numbers show that despite making up less than one percent of the total population of the capital Stockholm, Swedes of Somali heritage make up five percent of coronavirus-related hospital admissions.
The Somali community in Sweden is over-represented in the low-income strata, and the most common employment tends to be that found in the service sector – bus and taxi driving, for example. These are all high-contact, or ‘frontline’ jobs as they’ve come to be known, and many fear for their livelihood. Naturally, the ‘work from home’ privilege did not apply to many.
“We have many members of the Somali community who are between 40 and 50 years old and have several pre-existing medical conditions,” warns Musa.
Authorities urged people to work from home where possible and it restricted gatherings of 50 or more people – but restaurants, bars and schools for children under the age of 16 stayed open.
Unlike many other countries, Sweden followed a more laissez-faire approach to the pandemic. That said, the man behind their coronavirus strategy, Anders Tegnell, recently acknowledged that the country had experienced unnecessary deaths due to its policy.
The country has seen almost 50,000 infections and it’s still rising by more than 1,000 per day.
Johanna Westeson, a human rights lawyer and discrimination expert at Amnesty International in Sweden, spoke to TRT World of her “concern in how the pandemic is hitting the socio-economically vulnerable communities in Sweden.”
“The pandemic is hitting people whose housing situation is not ideal for quarantine,” said Westeson adding that the “pandemic is really exposing already existing inequalities.”
As in many other countries around the world, the impact of the coronavirus has highlighted pre-existing economic and social disparities. In the US, black people have been disproportionately impacted, accounting for more than 23 percent of death.
The British government has been criticised for not doing enough for ethnic minorities in the UK, a population heavily hit by the virus.
In Sweden, the country’s housing shortage has been laid bare and for Musa and other members of the Somali community, this reality has been challenging to navigate.
“We have three generations living in the same household so when Swedish authorities say if you are a high-risk group, you should isolate yourself in quarantine, where should the grandmother go? She doesn’t own a summer house in the southern part of Sweden. They don’t have an extra apartment.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, Sweden was lauded for its high rate of single-person households as potential protecting the country from the spread of the virus.
According to Eurostat, more than 50 percent of households are made up of one person. Migrant communities, who often live in multi-generational households were often left out of the housing discussion.
“If you have a household with several generations, of course, you are going to have a quick spread [of the coronavirus],” says Bjorn Olsen, a professor of infectious diseases at Uppsala University.
The municipality of Stockholm attempted to address the housing issue for families living in overcrowded accommodation and initially many welcomed it.
It quickly became apparent that rental housing made available to people who lived in large clusters also came with a price tag which proved far too costly for the very people it was intended to help.
“It was a very, very cynical move, presented as an intervention to protect societies most vulnerable, really?! It was just for show,” said Westeson.
“The problem is not that there is nowhere to go if you have money; there are many empty hotel rooms across the city. In reality, no one could benefit from this proposal,” she added.
For Musa, government advice encouraging people to work from home and to socially distance, “was mainly suitable for white middle-class families, not a working-class immigrant family.”
“The choice for many in the migrant communities is to either stay at home and lose a lot of income or go to work and risk your health and potentially that of your extended family – there is no option to work from their laptop,” he added.
One of the most tragic ways the coronavirus has hit Sweden is the case of retirement homes. Within these institutions, vulnerable and elderly people are cared for by immigrant care workers who are themselves some of the most vulnerable people in the country. The result of this combination, says Musa, is a “Swedish tragedy.”
According to the Swedish Public Health Agency, almost 50 percent of the 4,814 coronavirus deaths have occurred in care homes. And with 5.29 deaths per million, the country has one of the highest per-capita death rates in the world according to the scientific online publication Ourworldindata.com.
“If you are middle class if you have a good housing situation and if you have a job that allows you to work from home, you are likely in good health and these are all class-related,” says Westeson from Amnesty international.
The check-list that Westeson rolls out is by no means unique to Sweden. It goes to the heart of many debates that are taking place around the world about how every nation can better address rising inequality.
“Any government intervention has to be rights-based,” says Westeson, adding that polices need to be better targeted so that vulnerable communities can obtain more rights for particular workers who face uncertain working conditions.
Westeson does concede one positive: the coronavirus tragedy may yet help to reshape societies and ensure more robust human rights safeguards.
“It’s not that these inequalities started now, they have been there all along but it’s an opportunity to evaluate our response from a human rights and an equality point of view.”