On 23 March 2020 the Swedish-Somali Physician Association highlighted that six out of the first 15 deaths in Sweden from COVID-19 were of Somali background. They pointed to the lack of information about the coronavirus and how to avoid COVID-19 in languages other than Swedish and English. They also noted that these people came from Rinkeby-Kista and Spånga-Tensta, two socially deprived administrative districts in the northwest of Stockholm, often jointly referred to as Järva (approximately 50,000 and 40,000 residents respectively). This gained a lot of attention across national media, and spurred a debate that has taken somewhat diverse directions.
In immediate response to the media reporting, more than 6,000 posters with information in different languages began to be put up throughout the mentioned areas. The Public Health Agency of Sweden, well-known outside of Sweden through the voice of state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, translated coronavirus-related information on their website so that it is now available in 24 languages. The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency acknowledged that they had not managed to reach out to all groups in society, and in response they began to set out new information path ways. Besides existing information pathways, social media and civil society was engaged more directly. For instance, the agency initiated contacts with YouTubers and artists, in particular musicians, many originating themselves from the same or similar deprived areas as Rinkeby-Kista or Spånga-Tensta. Cherrie, 1.Cuz, Z.E. and Dree Low are among the artists who now reach out with coronavirus-related information through their social media channels. In a well-directed critique, Cherrie has commented that it is now, in an emergency situation like this, that it becomes evident how the societal resources they can provide, usually are neglected by the authorities.
The Swedish coronavirus-strategy, so critiqued outside of Sweden, and so endorsed by the Swedes, does not rely on legal restrictions and close-down, but on self-control and voluntary change of behavior in the population. Swedes are not prevented from doing things as usual, but are expected – for the good of all – to stay at home and avoid contact as much as possible; to do their best to contribute to the slow development of ‘the curve’, so that hospital emergency units can manage all those in need of medical care.
Needless to say, this ‘soft strategy’, as it has been called outside of Sweden, relies on not only massive amounts of information to the people, but that it is also pitched in relevant ways for the receivers. As Jihan Mohamed, a representative of the Swedish-Somali Physician Association, put it: ‘Communication is not a unidirectional practice’. It is indeed surprising that the Swedish authorities did not communicate in several languages and through several channels right from the start. After all, Sweden is a diverse society, and our authorities are responsible for all of us – and that is for the good of all.
Having said that, are COVID-19 racial inequalities then about language?
The topographical inequality of COVID-19 is blatant. The first reports presenting figures by city administrative district, was published on 7 April 2020 by the Region Stockholm, an authority responsible for all publicly-financed healthcare in the Stockholm County. They indicate that the uneven development that was identified just as deaths began to rise in March, was continued. On average, while 15 persons per 10,000 had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the municipality of Stockholm, in Rinkeby-Kista this figure corresponded to 47 and in Spånga-Tensta to 37. As updated on 21 April 2020, the figure for Stockholm was 26, and for Rinkeby-Kista and Spånga-Tensta, 64 and 54 respectively. Rinkeby-Tensta and Spånga-Tensta are also areas with a large share of persons with minority background (83% and 69% respectively, compared to 33% on average in Stockholm), and with low education and income and high proportions of unemployed, compared to the Stockholm average.
While many continued to stress the importance of Swedish language to access information, others pointed to how naïve and even racist this was. For journalist Bilan Osman, this nurtured the caricature of Somalis as ignorant and illiterate (Expressen 24/3). This is also exactly what the Christian Democrats party leader Ebba Busch did the week after, insisting this is all about cultural differences. But it is not only about the Somali community, but also about the Assyrian-Syriac community. These are persons born in ‘culturally distant societies’, unable to comply with the Swedish soft corona strategy, she stated as she endeavored to make the pandemic an immigration issue (Aftonbladet 2/4). Sadly, equal in dignity are not watchwords guarded by the Christian Democrats, not even when we pass away. In an attempt to counteract Busch’s de-humanising words, which reduced the Somali and Assyrian-Syriac communities into something face-less, obscure and – ‘un-Swedish’, journalist Rakel Chukri painted a picture of the Assyrian-Syriac community filled with flesh and blood, with persons who had lost their near and dear and whose church for mourning was now closed down (Sydsvenskan 10/4). These are aspects of how the pandemic cut across the human condition.
Inadequate housing is seen as a main factor contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. It involves cramped and inter-generational housing accommodation, two different but sometimes intersecting conditions. This was for instance stressed by Imam Hussein Farah Warsame from the Rinkeby Mosque. Here, he said, people follow the recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Sweden to the same extent as elsewhere, some do and others do not (Svenska Dagbladet 25/3). Other factors contribute, including the fact that many work in the care, health, transport and commercial sector, and working from home is not option, instead they have to go with public transport and stay in their workplace each day.
In order to limit the spread of the virus, and in response to the figures presented by the Region Stockholm, the local authorities of Rinkeby-Kista and Spånga-Tensta have said they will arrange evacuation housing. This is temporary housing for persons at risk. However, as recently reported, this might take some time. The directors of the two districts explain that they are to implement interventions for which the usual regulations do not suffice. The situation is extreme and wobbly. They are, however, following a decision taken on 19 April 2020, underway to elaborate on an implementation plan (Nyhetsbyrån Järva 20/4).
How this difficult situation is affecting asylum seekers and persons who have recently received their residence permit, including their housing situation, is not presently the focus of the debate, at least not yet. As it seems, COVID-19 does not unsettle socioeconomic inequalities, rather it intensifies them. This is why reception and integration measures are urgent matters also in these coronavirus times.