Virus Diaries: A Swede in isolation

Virus Diaries: Kristina Höök

A Swede in isolation

Suddenly I am finding myself defending a strategy I barely understand, for stopping a virus with unknown behaviour, while all around people are dying, the economy is collapsing and there are no longer any hugs. As any academic, I read the research papers, I follow the curves, I listen to the news and I discuss with my colleagues all over the world. And I find myself repeatedly defending Sweden and the strategies taken. A weird situation as there are aspects of how Sweden has acted that I do not agree with at all. Also, I have in the past argued that the idea of a national state is crap. We are all in this together and just because you live in some particular municipality, in some particular region, in a particular state, within the EU, does not mean that this is who you are? And still I defend ‘Sweden’. What is going on?

The academic machinery is for once exposed to the general public and people take sides. Sometimes on a well-informed basis, sometimes more as cheering for a team. The messiness of the situation is striking. Not only is it interdisciplinary, involving medicine, mathematical models, sociology, psychology, organisational theory, computer science, but also entangled with politics, values, outlook on what is important in life, the idea of a national state and protecting your own. Our mortality scares us. We wriggle in pain whenever we have to accept that people die – for whatever reason. To an academic, the complexity of the situation and decision making is a humbling experience. The messiness of what makes a society tick is overtly exposed. The need for interdisciplinarity is written all over this crisis. None of the kind of research I do takes this kind of complexity into account.

What is Sweden doing? I guess across the globe people are wondering how we can risk letting our children go to school, how we can be allowed to go to restaurants, why we are not closing down. I do not want to fully defend the Swedish strategy nor do I know exactly the reasoning of the public health authority, but it is clear that it is in parts building on an understanding of human nature. We can be forced to stay indoors, be quarantined for months, but then, at some point, the society needs to open again. And then, if the disease comes back, it is hard to close everything down again. Societal constructs and mutual trust between state and people are fragile. Especially when people lose their jobs and their financial security. Based on sociological theories and crisis management theories, they are trying to balance the strategies employed.

What is perhaps hard to understand when you see Sweden from the outside is the firm division between different authorities. The public health authority has one very clear task: to care for the health of everyone in Sweden. Their recommendations are not based on financial health. Instead they have to weigh the spread of Covid against isolating children at home with abusive parents, violence towards women, increase in suicide and mental health issues, shutting down healthcare as parents have to stay at home with their small children, and a myriad of other consequences of a quarantine.

But the decision is not solely in the hands of the public health authority. The decision is always with our politicians. They, in turn, have to weigh together advice from the health authorities with all other expert advice – and with a lot of pressure from different actors on the market. Most of all, they have act carefully to not destroy our trust in the authorities or violate democracy. Maybe this is what is most confusing about Sweden: we trust authorities. We trust the law. (And there is no law in Sweden that allows us to entirely shut down society unless there is war). There is a long tradition of making documentation publicly available in Sweden. As I work at a university, it is sometimes quite annoying as, for example, all the documentation of our work, including emails, is regarded as public. A journalist can ask to see my correspondence and I have to deliver it. I love how the public health authority lets us see their data, their models, and how we can even hang out in their webinairs when they discuss academic results with epidemiologist.

Why then am I letting myself become so ‘Swedish’? Why am I lured into looking upon this as a team sport, cheering for ‘Sweden’? Why am I letting myself simplify what my ‘academic self’ knows is a complex entanglement of different disciplinary knowledge leading to insecurities in what is the best model, the best course of action? In fact, given the lack of knowledge of the behaviour of the virus, whether there will ever be a vaccine, the element of randomness in how it spreads, it is not clear that there even is a best course of action to be taken. The idea of evidence-based practice is taking on a new meaning when faced with the complexities of this disruption. New Public Management has had to take a break, letting professionals focus on the content of their work, be it caring for sick people or teaching students online.

For my own academic practice, I am letting myself take a break before taking action. I know Covid will be much discussed in my community. There will be studies, designs, concerns about privilege and ways we should change the focus of our academic efforts. I worry about the shallowness of such sudden re-orientation of research focus. There is a lesson to be learnt here, and it will influence my academic work I am sure. But it needs to go deeper, beyond alarmist, simplistic, one-sided solutions – shifting me beyond simply being a ‘Swede’ cheering my team on. If anything, I find myself revisiting the basic values in the design research we are doing on aesthetics, ethics and what makes life worth living, letting more of the complexities of those questions thrive in my reasoning. When there are hugs again.

Kristina Höök

KTH, Sweden

(Image credit: Linus Mimietz)