Quarantine diaries | Gotland: Community matters in this Swedish island
On the island of Gotland in Sweden, locals look out for each other and find innovative ways to keep their lives moving while practising social distancing
About two weeks ago, on 10 March, as I sat by myself at the library café, watching the sunset, the atmosphere was just a notch below its buzzing self. There were still folks meeting for fika, latte papas with their children, and university students working on projects together. March in Sweden is when the birds start chirping and the thawing land sprouts flowers in yellow and blue. It is a time when the cafés start filling up, more people are outdoors and the laughter heard on the streets carries into homes through open windows.
Something changed in the next 48 hours. Gotland, my home since 2017, had its first confirmed coronavirus case. The national authorities advised tourists from mainland Sweden and other parts of Europe to avoid travelling to Gotland for the Easter break. Flights to Gotland have been cancelled and traffic on the ferry from Stockholm is down to a trickle, mostly Gotlanders returning home.
Given their history of invasions and battles, it’s said the hardy islanders can cope with anything thrown their way. Hence solidarity and community support matter a lot on the island of 59,000 inhabitants. Visby, a Hanseatic Unesco heritage town on Gotland, and home of the famous Almedalen Week held every year, is said to have the highest density of restaurants, cafés and bars in Sweden. The quaint lanes and cobbled streets of the city, where I live, also have dozens of family owned boutiques selling lambswool, ceramics and Gotlandic goodies. Naturally, small businesses are concerned and are trying to look for innovative ways to keep the business going. Several cafés have widened the spacing between tables, and restaurants have begun takeaway services. A Facebook group started last week to volunteer and help fellow islanders already has 3,500 members offering to run errands, shop groceries or pick up parcels for those unable to step out. Local grocery stores have set up special timings for the elderly to shop, and some are home-delivering to them.
At the time of writing this, no part of Sweden is under a total lockdown. There is no mandatory work from home measure as yet; restaurants and shops are open.
Only people above 70 have been advised to be home, and visits to elder-care homes are restricted. A lot of emphasis is laid on the individual to be responsible and practise social distancing. Perhaps this could change following the Swedish Prime Minister’s address to the nation on Sunday night asking people “to be prepared for more decisions, sometimes at short notice" in this rapidly changing situation.
As an Indian living abroad, I traverse two lands, two cultures and, quite literally, two homes. My work as a communications consultant requires me to travel between Sweden and India every six-eight weeks. It was business as usual when I returned to Gotland a month ago. The pace at which the pandemic is unfolding is surreal. In these times it is heartening to see how the Indian mission is looking out for its citizens, helping with visa extensions, opening up emergency helplines, making available registration forms via social media to facilitate urgent travel when India opens its borders and collating a list of those who are in need of financial assistance if they have lost their jobs.
I have been working from home for the past 10 days. The weekly ferry ride to Stockholm for meetings, the frequent fikas with the most creative people on this island, the live concerts and the almost daily visit to the library have stopped. These are moments I would cherish most in a day. Instead, life has moved online. I am discovering new tools to work, engage in interesting conversations, and make video calls with the extended family, where everyone speaks at the same time, no one can hear the other, and we are all laughing, god knows why!
It has taken a few days to push myself into a routine. The living room transforms into the home office, yoga studio and evening hang-out area, depending on the time of day. It is also taking a lot of self-discipline (still work in progress) not to go down the rabbit hole of news about the pandemic from every region in Sweden and every affected district in India.
In Sweden, and especially on Gotland, where space and nature trails are in abundance, we still have the luxury of stepping out for a jog or a walk in the nearby woods, without crowding the area. Passers-by, usually walking alone or in twos, still smile or greet each other gently from a distance. Customers shop calmly and there does not appear to be any shortage so far (even of toilet paper). The only item I have not found in department stores is a hand sanitizer and when I asked for it in broken Swedish, I was promptly offered a squirt of sanitizer on my hand by helpful staff.
My visit to the local store is down to once in five days. Yet it is so heartening to see the lady at the tiller greet me with the same calm smile and her customary way of saying “hej hej".
Rupali Mehra is a communications consultant and founder of Content People AB. She divides her time between Sweden and India.