Greta Stocklassa, a half-Czech, half-Swedish student at Prague’s FAMU film school, was doing an internship in New York in March when fear of the Covid-19 epidemic hitting the city spurred her to return to Europe. The documentary maker chose to go to Sweden, where there has been no lockdown, instead of the Czech Republic, which was quick to impose comprehensive restrictions in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus. In this interview Stocklassa explains why.
Could you tell us something about your background and your parents? How much of your life have you spent in Sweden, and how much in the Czech Republic?
“I was born in the Czech Republic. My parents met there before the Velvet Revolution.
“I lived in Prague until I was 12 years old and then my dad, who is Swedish, got a job in Sweden, so we moved to Sweden in 2005.
“I graduated high school in Sweden, so I lived there till I was 19.
“Then I decided I wanted to study film in Prague so I moved back there – and I’ve been living in Prague since.”
“I guess the perception of Sweden outside now is that Sweden doesn’t do anything – like it’s anarchy here, or something. That’s not true at all.”
You’re currently in Sweden, when you could have also here to the Czech Republic. I’d like to ask you about that choice in a few moments. But first, we hear a lot about the Swedish approach to the coronavirus, where the government basically decided not to impose a lockdown. What measures are in place in Sweden?
“I guess the perception of Sweden outside now is that Sweden doesn’t do anything – like it’s anarchy here, or something.
“Well, that’s not true at all.
“I think the main difference is in that the government doesn’t put restrictions on people – they recommend.
“They show it as recommendations.
“And they rely a lot on experts, on health experts, here.
“I’ve been following the news coverage in the Czech Republic and here, and mostly what I see in the Czech Republic is Andrej Babiš and the government taking a lot of space in the media.
“You don’t see that here.
“You have [state epidemiologist] Anders Tegnell, the main health consultant, and the government is much more behind him, in the shadows.
“He is the outward face.
“And they of course follow his guidelines. That’s because the Swedish Constitution is built that way.
“The executive power is in the government, but it has to listen to the authorities.”
Do people in Sweden respect the recommendations? When they aren’t ordered to behave in a certain way, do they respect what they’ve been recommended to do?
“Right at this point I’m in the countryside, in a very, very small village. It has only one shop and that’s pretty much it.
“You have signs saying you should wash your hands, you should keep your distance.
“They have even installed these plastic covers in the grocery stores, so the people behind the counters are behind those covers.
“At the same time, I’ve heard from my sister, who’s been in Stockholm, that people are not that much respecting it.
“Sometimes in restaurants people are close to each other.
“But, for instance, travelling has decreased a lot. It’s 90 percent less than it was the same time last year.
“So I think in general people are respecting that.”
Obviously here in the Czech Republic masks are compulsory. Do people wear them much voluntarily in Sweden?
“No. They don’t.
“But they do when they’re taking the subway, or when they’re in crowded places.”
What about schools? Is it the case that most schools are open still in Sweden?
“Yes, I think so.
“The reason Sweden has been able to take this approach is because in general there is big trust in government here – much bigger than it is in the Czech Republic.”
“They started this distance education at universities, but schools have remained open – to keep society going.
“But the biggest difference, I would say, the reason why Sweden has been able to take this approach, is because in general there is big trust in government here – much bigger than it is in the Czech Republic.
“The government trusts the people and people trust the government.
“So it’s a much more equal relationship.
“I don’t say this approach would have been right in every country. But it makes sense that it’s been taken here.”
In March you were in New York and you realised you had to get out. You could see the situation in the Czech Republic, you could also see the situation in Sweden, and you chose to go to Sweden. Is that why you chose to go to Sweden, because of this greater trust between people and government and less use of strict orders?
“Yes. In the beginning of March, in New York, I could see that it was starting to heat up in Europe.
“And I felt it was going to come to the US, with its much worse health care system and everything, and I decided to go back to Europe.
“By that time, the Czech Republic had imposed the lockdown and all the restrictions – very tough measures.
“Meanwhile in Sweden it was still pretty much open, though they had many more cases.
“To me that was a sign reflecting the approach, or the mentality, in both countries.
“I remember the Czech Republic in 2015 when there was the refugee crisis – there were no refugees in the Czech Republic, but it was one of the most xenophobic countries in Europe.
“The Czech Republic is very fast in taking action on the grounds of fear, and that’s what I kind of started to sense was happening: There were a lot of tough restrictions every fast.”
“The Czech Republic is very fast in taking action on the grounds of fear, and that’s what I kind of started to sense was happening: There were a lot of tough restrictions every fast.
“Meanwhile in Sweden they’ve taken the opposite approach.
“They’re not saying there won’t be any restrictions, but they’ve acknowledged from the beginning that these restrictions need to be just temporary.
“They can’t last for long, because of two reasons.
“Because you can’t stop society for months or years. You need it to keep going if you want to have this kind of globalised society.
“And the second reason is because they knew people would get sick of these restrictions, they would start making revolts against them – which you actually can see in the Czech Republic after more than a month.
“People are getting very sick of wearing these face masks and they’ve started breaking these rules.
“So the method in Sweden was to impose these restrictions gradually, when they are necessary.
“But in the Czech Republic there were very harsh restrictions very early, which made me very sceptical with regard to what’s going to happen later – also because I don’t have any faith in the government in the Czech Republic right now.”
So you would say these different responses to the situation tell us a lot about the different characters of the two nations?
“I would say yes.
“I think this reaction is very typically Swedish, actually: not ordering people what to do, but giving recommendations – and in that way respecting the intelligence of the population, and the fact the people actually care about each other and should do these things individually and take responsibility individually.
“Of course, it has both its pros and cons.
“You can see that there have been some mistakes made by the government.
“They should have been clearer in some ways, I think.
“But of course I’m not an expert either and I think it’s too early to tell which way was right.”
“At least from the government side, I think it’s been used as a populist move, again, to strengthen the power, or to show off power.
“I don’t know, I still think it’s weird when I read how they are bragging about how the Czech Republic has been so good, one of the best countries in this regard.
“Because it’s been a very egoistic way of handling the problem, I guess.
“If you’re a country in the European Union and you want to live in a global society, you can’t just pretend you can lock yourselves inside and lock the outside world out.
“I think it’s been very characteristic in the way that it’s been using fear.
“The government has been using fear in people to go through with measures that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise – which they have a history of doing, like using fear to control people.
“And of course when it’s about health, there is no argument against it.
“No-one wants people to die, of course. No-one wants to be a threat to anyone else.
“So I think that’s a very typical characteristic – that they’ve been using fear.
“Also I don’t like the way that personal interactions have been – from what I read of course, because I haven’t been in the Czech Republic.
“But what I read, and what I hear from my mom and my boyfriend, is that people have started controlling each other: if you’re not wearing a face mask, you’re suddenly a bad guy, you’re trying to kill someone else, practically – which is not true.
“I guess it’s getting better now, from what I’ve heard too.
“I think that since the Czech Republic doesn’t have a stable democracy like Sweden has, I think it’s a very fragile situation now, with regard to what’s going to happen to the country in the next couple of months and years.”
“But I’ve seen a lot of nice things too, with people sewing face masks and helping the elderly, buying them groceries and stuff, so I don’t want to be completely critical.
“I just think that since the Czech Republic doesn’t have a stable democracy like Sweden has, I think it’s a very fragile situation now, with regard to what’s going to happen to the country in the next couple of months and years.”
Some people listening to this may be saying, OK, Sweden has more openness, fewer orders, but Sweden also has around 10 times as many deaths with Covid-19 as the Czech Republic, which has a similar population – maybe that freedom, that openness, has too high a price?
“Well yes, I understand that.
“Of course the high death rate is really bad.
“I think it’s very sad that so many people have died here.
“And I think some mistakes have happened.
“The biggest one was that from the beginning the Swedish government have been saying they need to protect people who are at higher risk of dying, which they haven’t managed to do.
“The high death level has been linked to the virus spreading in nursing homes, which is a great failure.
“But at the same time, you can see that the Swedish government, the health organisation, have maintained consistency with which way they want to tackle this crisis.
“And that to me, at least, is giving some hope that Sweden is going to get through this.
“They may have, how should I put it, higher loss in the beginning.
“They have always said that they don’t know how this virus is going to act, if there is going to be a second wave of the virus, and they still haven’t reached the level of health care getting overwhelmed.
“So in that way they have succeeded in a way.
“I guess it’s difficult to say, for instance, with the Czech Republic what the loss, or what the result of these measures, will be in the longer run or on the whole, in the bigger sense.
“Because a lot of people will lose their jobs, a lot of people will end up on the streets.
“It’s very difficult to say.”
Are you planning now to stay in Sweden? Or would you consider coming back to the Czech Republic?
“I am definitely thinking about going back.
“I live in Prague – I want to live in Prague.
“And why I went to Sweden is because I was supposed to be in New York and I still had time when I didn’t have to be in Prague.
“So when I saw the situation I decided I wanted to be here.
“But I’m planning on going back to Prague as soon as possible.
“I’d rather be there. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the corona situation right now.”
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