Sweden coronavirus: Stockholm should have reminded me of “normal”, but instead felt imprudent

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On early assignments in Syria, Ukraine or the Central African Republic, we left our loved ones knowing that they were safe at home. But now, a possible trip makes me think: “I could bring back the virus and infect my fiancée, who could infect others and who could end up in bed, in hospitals or worse.

So I said yes and started the preparations. Instead of the malaria tables and the bulletproof jacket I needed earlier, I had a box of surgical gloves, two types of face mask, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer.

The taxi journey to Heathrow took only 20 minutes, about half the normal time. But if the deserted streets seemed strange, the departure lounge was disturbing. Usually it was teeming with businessmen and tourists, there were only 20 people checking in with agents fixed behind plastic screens.

Together with my colleagues, correspondent Phil Black and photojournalist Martin Bourke, I did my best to keep my distance, joking “I would like to shake your hand but …”. Phil and I even gave up, abandoning our usual team effort, to allow Martin to manage the whole kit.

Once past the security checks, the only shops open were a newsagent and a chemist. If I wanted a white oat milk white or a cool Thomas Pink shirt, this wasn’t the place.

As we waited, it emerged that this empty terminal was not going to be an exception in Europe. It could be a lasting image for some time to come – a new normal.

British Airways planes are parked in Heathrow.

At the moment without a direct flight from London to Stockholm, our trip would take 6 hours with a change in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Just as we climbed into the clouds, I noticed a British Airways plane parked at home, like the rest of the world.

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As we settled into our three hour flight, the bite of my mask around my nose began to take hold. Breathing has also become irregular. There were no more than 20 people on the flight. We have expanded, leaving empty spaces between us. The cabin crew with protective clothing offered sandwiches, opening the tray of all buyers so that they didn’t have to touch anything.

The crew kept some distance on board the first flight.

Helsinki airport was as sad as Heathrow. More closed stores. Other planes grazing and the scarcity of people now expected.

Flying to the old world

But with the connecting flight to Stockholm came a change of gear. People were sitting side by side in a two-by-two configuration. It was uncomfortable. Suddenly everyone was too close.

Even from the air it was easy to see that things would have gone differently in Sweden. I have noticed a telltale sign of life: traffic. The first trace of what was normal.

In Stockholm, working or chatting over coffee is still a daily activity.

In our hotel I was asked to sign the terms and conditions of my stay on an iPad with one finger. Really? Then I spied on a crowded lobby bar with friends meeting for drinks. I saw hugs and a kiss on the cheek. Not a mask or glove in sight. It’s not normal. Pass me that hand sanitizer.

When we started working, we tried to keep our distance and sanitize as regularly as possible. But soon it became clear that some compromises were needed.

We had to travel in the same car. We could not expect Marty alone to load, transport and arrange the shooting equipment.

Stockholm's main shopping street was full of people.

After 6 weeks of stopping in the UK, it was incredible to see so many people on the street, go to work, go to school and even socialize. We were perplexed on Stockholm’s main shopping street as people strolled in and out of H&M or had a coffee.

We went back to our individual hotel rooms to work on the story, enjoying some isolation, before having to cram together to prepare for the live shot.

The next day, while we were looking for a place for the broadcast, we came across a bar full of people who enjoyed themselves and rode under the spring sun.

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If I look jealous, it’s because I was. However, I was also in conflict. How nice it would have been to wander, take a chair and enjoy a beer. But I also knew that the death rate in Sweden is now significantly higher than many other countries in Europe, with 2,500 deaths.

Sweden has not closed like much of Europe, but has a higher mortality rate.

They said there was security in the numbers. But counts of dead and infected across Europe suggest the exact opposite.

I thought the most abnormal thing about visiting Sweden was the trip there. But in reality, the vision of “normal life” that is happening in Stockholm now, a glimpse of our recent past, now seems the least normal thing in the world.

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