- Sweden, which has taken a unique approach to the pandemic, doesn’t have a mask mandate.
- Those who wear face masks tell Insider they are scared or face abuse in public.
- One person said: “I have had people cough on me or mimic coughing on more occasions than I can count.”
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Andreia Rodrigues left Sweden because of its COVID-19 response.
Rodrigues, who had been living in Sweden for more than four years, decided to return to her native Portugal in March, saying she felt unsafe living in a country where the government had no rules about mask wearing, and where she faced abuse when she did wear one.
“I couldn’t take it in Sweden anymore,” she told Insider.
She said her fiancé feared for her safety when she went outside in a mask.
“I have had people laugh and point at me, people screaming, ‘You should lock yourself at home if you are so scared of corona,’ people coughing in my direction and then laughing and saying: ‘Corona! Corona!'”
Sweden’s health ministry doesn’t recommend mask wearing as a preventative measure against the coronavirus.
The strategy contrasts with most other countries, where mask wearing in indoor settings often remained a rule even as governments were recording low case numbers.
Governments and scientists in places like the UK have said masks will likely be the last rule to change in their countries as they reopen.
And while Sweden’s government tweaked its recommendations in January to ask that people wear masks in very specific circumstances, most of the country still doesn’t do it, leaving those who do feeling ostracized and unsafe.
Sweden has long pursued a different strategy
Sweden has taken a unique approach to the pandemic. As other nations implemented lockdowns, Sweden had few rules, focusing instead on social distancing.
Its death toll rose much higher than the countries beside it, despite having similar population demographics.
However, that death toll has stayed lower than many other European countries that were overwhelmed by the virus.
Experts pointed to unique aspects of Swedish life as reasons for this, including the high volume of people that live alone and population’s high trust in the government, which suggests people are likely to follow recommendations even without their becoming formal rules.
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, also said last June that, with hindsight, more measures were needed.
Some residents now say they fear Sweden is making similar mistakes with its mask strategy.
‘They would glare at me … yell at me, cough at me’
Jennifer Luetz, who is originally from Germany, lives in Norrköping, near Stockholm. She told Insider people “stared at me like I was an alien” when she started wearing a mask last February.
Luetz said she is in an at-risk group, and is afraid to stop wearing a one.
She said she “got used to the staring.”
But she said “what was horrid, though, was the catcalls and the nasty comments, people laughing at you openly in the stores.” She also said she received xenophobic comments for wearing a mask.
Others, who said they wore masks to feel safer, described similar reactions.
One woman, who asked not to be named as she said it could put her husband’s job at risk, told Insider she got funny looks when she started wearing a mask in March 2020. Her identity is known to Insider.
“As months passed, people became more aggressive. They would glare at me in anger, yell at me, cough at me. It was ridiculous and made me very angry,” she said.
Keith Begg, who lives in a Stockholm suburb and campaigns for stricter coronavirus rules, said he has faced “ongoing” abuse for wearing a mask since April 2020.
He said it’s less rare now, but there were many incidents: “Once I had my mask ripped off by a bunch of teenagers who ran away. I have had people cough on me or mimic coughing on more occasions than I can count,” he said.
“You still become a little bit conscious of wearing a mask in Sweden because it is still not normalized.”
Another woman in Stockholm, who asked not to be named as she feared repercussions from work, said she gets accusing looks from people when wearing a mask, and her children were made fun of in school for wearing them.
Masks are barely recommended
Sweden’s public health agency emphasizes many of the steps other countries do: Social distancing, working from home, washing your hands, getting vaccinated.
But masks are a notable absence.
In January, ten months after a pandemic was declared, the agency added a recommendation – not a rule – that adults wear face masks on public transport.
And it’s only for rush hours: between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m, and only when they can’t distance themselves from other people.
Israel, which has the highest proportion of its population fully vaccinated, only has one restriction still in place: masks in closed public spaces.
The World Health Organization also recommends that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks.
But here’s how Sweden has justified its alternative approach: Both Tegnell, the state epidemiologist, and Johan Carlson, head of the public health agency, have said that mask wearing could lead to people ignoring other recommendations like social distancing.
Swedes don’t often have to wear masks
Insider also spoke to people in Sweden who say they only wear masks in line with government guidance.
Mazdak Dorosti, who works in banking in Stockholm, said he has worn a mask twice: at an Apple store and the dentist. He said staff gave him a mask both times.
“I see people wearing masks in the metro and shopping malls, but the majority of people don’t wear a mask,” he said.
He said the government’s not recommending masks meant “wearing a mask sent two conflicting messages, either the person was sick or the person was little paranoid.” He suggested that it means people who wanted to wear masks didn’t.
Katarina Eckerberg said she and her family “wear masks in public places such as supermarkets, public transport, shopping centers, but not otherwise.”
“It is not obligatory but recommended and maybe half do, half don’t,” she said.
Cathy Xiao Chen, who helps lead a coworking space in Uppsala, told Insider: “I wear a mask while taking public transport. Some people do, many people don’t.”
“People continue to invade each other’s personal space and ignore social-distancing recommendations,” he said.
‘I feel like I am on another planet’
Sweden’s new mask recommendations appear to have had different effects around the country, but mask-wearers still aren’t at ease.
Dorosti, who lives in Stockholm, said: “People felt more comfortable in wearing a mask, without getting the judgmental looks.”
Meanwhile Begg, who lives in the city’s suburbs, said: “From my observations, I would say between 15 to 20% wear them on public transport.” He said he thinks less than 5% of people wear masks in the supermarket.
“The lack of awareness in Stockholm is quite astounding and would be quite difficult to comprehend for many Europeans where the mask has become an essential accessory,” he said.
Luetz said that the lack of masks means that “sometimes I feel like I am on another planet.”
Rodrigues, who left Sweden in March, said she “started seeing a very slight increase in the amount of people wearing masks” before she moved.
But she said going back to Portugal has proven just how different Sweden was.
“I think back at the time I spent there, being surrounded by hundreds of maskless people at the supermarket for example, and it feels unreal, like a previous life.”