Sweden's Pandemic Strategy Deadly for Most Vulnerable | Opinion

In Sweden, the foreign-born are overrepresented among COVID-19 deaths. It is no secret. Neither the Swedish media nor the country's politicians are willing to discuss the tragedy publicly. Is the reality too hard to handle for a country that considers itself to be one of the most humanitarian in the world?

Thirty-eight people I know passed away from COVID-19. They are relatives, friends and acquaintances. Among them my beloved uncle Melek, my aunt Ziyane, my relative by marriage and good friend's 41-year-old son Lutfi, my father's friend the priest Munir Barbar's son Jean, my mother's friends Maryam and Nabihat, my father's friends Abdulmesih, Samuel and Davut.

Churches are now closed for mass in Sweden. Many of us fear that our feelings of sorrow will return when they open up again. Forty-eight people from my church have passed away from the disease. I close my eyes and see their faces, hear their laughter and prayers ... when the church eventually opens, they won't be in the pews.

It could have been different if Sweden had only listened to their foreign-born.

I'm of course aware that I live in one of the best countries in the world. We have an outstanding welfare system and I'm very grateful to be one of the privileged people that migrated here.

I was recently hospitalized for COVID-19 and the doctors did an amazing job curing me. But we must dare to speak out about our country's problems.

During the last couple of weeks, the Swedish media has at last woken up to its responsibility and started to question the government and the unique strategy it used to handle the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Both the Swedish public radio's flagship Ekots lördagsintervju and public television's Agenda recently interviewed Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and others in charge.

They are questioning the Swedish method in handling COVID-19, now that we have over 12,000 dead.

For a country with only 10 million inhabitants, that's a very high death toll. But in none of the interviews was the overrepresentation of foreign-born deaths mentioned.

No lockdown was ever in place; only recommendations and restrictions that the authorities trust Swedish people to follow, because to them not restricting personal freedom is most important.

The Swedish government and its authorities have promised that the most vulnerable in society will be protected. But that hasn't happened—not for the elderly who were gasping for air in nursing homes or immigrants for whom the strategy was not suitable.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Sweden's public health officials stated that the coronavirus would not spread in the country and there was no need to worry. But those of us who knew the immigrant situation did worry. We knew that if a deadly virus made its way to socio-economically vulnerable areas it would be hard to stop. Many with immigrant backgrounds live in crowded places.

Human rights advocates asked the government to consider the conditions immigrants live in while making critical health care decisions.

"Are you really willing to stigmatize certain folk groups?" I was asked when I spoke to officials.

In the last week of February 2020, I spent many hours driving around the immigrant-dense suburbs of Stockholm, in the so-called socio-economically vulnerable areas.

I spoke to Romanian beggars, Nigerian dishwashers, Iraqi cab drivers, Syrian waiters, Turkish market owners, Finnish pensioners and Ugandan carpet washers.

Some of them are Swedes, meaning Swedish citizens; others are former asylum seekers who stayed because their home country refused to receive them. Others are people who are undocumented residents in the so called "shadow community." They have never applied for any kind of residency in Sweden and are therefore not registered. Nearly all of those I spoke to lacked basic knowledge about the virus.

I was not surprised by how little they knew about what was going on around them. They work long hours and in many cases, must support poor and sick relatives in their respective native countries. Many did not understand or speak Swedish.

On March 3, 2020, I was at my mother's home in Södertälje. Home care staff was there, as they were expected to be, four times per day. They were not allowed to wear gloves, masks nor hand sanitizer. My mom is battling many illnesses. She suffers from severe asthma, goiter, cardiovascular disease and is wheelchair-bound. That day I decided to stay with my mother. I was afraid that she would get infected from the staff that was supposed to care for her. I remained with her for three months.

Sweden coronavirus
An early morning commuter in Sweden wears a face mask as she waits for a bus on January 7, 2021. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

On March 11, 2020, the first person that died with the diagnosis of COVID-19 was registered in Sweden.

That same day the communications company Bright Mind Agency and I started a virtual campaign to help the most vulnerable. We launched a website called TellCorona with videos in 15 languages featuring celebrities—that immigrants would recognize—urging them to take preventive action to stop the spread of the virus.

On April 4, I asked the authorities about the death toll in Stockholm. I was told that 229 had died. By that time, I knew that 48 Assyrians/Syriacs had died of the disease. Nearly one quarter of the total.

Then the Somali Doctors' Association raised the alarm and said that Somalis also were overrepresented among the dead. The math was not hard to do.

There were other reasons for our concern: cultural and traditional. Many Swedes of foreign origin live close to their elderly, if not in the same house or in the same neighborhood.

We pointed out, among other things, that immigrants were overrepresented in occupations where it is impossible to work from home, that they need to take public transportation to work. They also often live in overcrowded neighborhoods.

For a couple of months, while we were hearing one ambulance after the other taking family, friends and neighbors to hospitals, we kept asking the government for numbers. Were we overrepresented? And why? Would the Swedish government change its strategy to stop us from getting infected?

In June, the Swedish Public Health Agency published a report declaring that the foreign-born were overrepresented among those that died with COVID-19. But this report did not show how many among the dead had one or two immigrant parents. The overrepresentation is even higher if they are counted.

In mid January 2021, I asked the government about new numbers.

In an email to me on January 27, Malin Ahrne, an investigator at the Public Health Agency, wrote that they had prepared a new report comparing Swedish-born and foreign-born COVID deaths. She said it would be published in a few weeks. They had not looked at data relating to foreign-born children this time either. But at least now they admitted that they should have listened to us.

"Exactly how it comes about that COVID-19 affected foreign-born more is probably due to a combination of certain residential areas being affected more by COVID. They may be more vulnerable due to people living more densely packed areas, more families living in overcrowded conditions, more multi-generational families living together, more people working in service professions or other professions where you cannot keep social distance and more. There is nothing to indicate that there are any genetic or cultural explanations or the like," Ahrne wrote.

It became clear the government would not take action to prevent more COVID-related deaths.

Just days after I received Ahrne's email, the Public Health Agency recommended that people living in socially vulnerable situations, such as the homeless and undocumented, should be prioritized for vaccination.

After massive criticism from the biggest Swedish opposition conservative party Moderaterna and many others, the Public Health Agency withdrew the recommendation and said that there was no precise definition of "undocumented."

Now we are back to square one.

Our work to shed light on the vulnerable shadow and immigrant societies and their fatal relationship with COVID continues at the hands of a government that doesn't want to or dare to face reality.

Nuri Kino is an independent investigative multi-award-winning reporter and minority rights expert. He is the founder of A Demand for Action and TellCorona.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.