One of the main reasons I started writing this blog was for my daughter Emili to be able to read it in the future and get a glimpse into our life when she was young. Now the life that we are used to has suddenly become threatened by the coronavirus outbreak. With this post I am summarizing how our life has changed thus far. Another reason why I am running a blog is because writing helps me organize and process my thoughts. When it comes to my thoughts about the coronavirus, they are in dire need of processing and organizing.
A few disclaimers. The situation is changing rapidly and what I state here is valid at the time of publishing, but might become outdated quite fast. The text is not meant to give a systematic and objective overview of the crisis, but rather my own interpretation of how it is affecting us. As such the writing is not polished but rough and emotional, which is exactly how I am experiencing the crisis on a daily basis. I am sure that historians will give us a more rational overview once enough time has passed.
The turning point
I have to admit that I did not think much of the coronavirus when the first news about it started coming in back in the last quarter of 2019. Not even when it started spreading around the world. I simply did not think its effect would be significant. But now in mid March 2020, its impact on our lives is profound. And it makes me terrified. Well, I am not scared of the virus itself since I am not in a risk category, but of what the virus will do to the society.
For me March 12th was a turning point. It was the day when I started taking the virus outbreak seriously. The atmosphere at work was creepy. One of my closest colleagues went home before lunch in order to isolate himself and his family. My company recommended everybody to work from home from the next day. Aneta and me decided that we should stock up so I went grocery shopping in the evening. There have been reports about people hoarding supplies. Our plan was not to hoard but to get supplies so we could be self sustained for a week, which is the recommendation by the Swedish authorities. Never before have I seen so many people at my local store. There were about ten cash registers open, each with roughly twenty people in the queue. A lot of shelves were empty. When I was 5 years old, Croatia was at war. It did not impact my childhood a lot because my hometown Zagreb was not in immediate danger. But that is what I thought about during grocery shopping this Thursday evening – war. On the way home I could not help but wonder how far we were from a situation when I would have to fight to get the groceries home safely. As I did not get everything we needed, Aneta went back to the store the next day. She witnessed a fight about a can of food at the line to the cashier. One person accused another one of stealing the can from their shopping cart. Stealing a not yet paid can of food! I don’t think that it takes much to go from this to killing each other for food.
I went to work on Friday. The office was almost empty, I guess there was around 10% of the usual occupancy. At the end of the workday, I took my laptop home with me planning to work part of the next week from home. During the weekend the recommendation to work from home was strengthened – the office would go into soft close and one would need special permission to be able to enter. For me as a software engineer working from home is not a big deal, and my team is geographically distributed so we are used to video calls. I like working from home once in a while, but the office is scheduled to be closed for at least two weeks, which makes this a completely different story. Anyway, I should not complain – I am privileged to be able to take my work home, while lot of people do not have this possibility.
Before the outbreak
Let’s rewind just a few weeks back. Admittedly, I was also worried then about the worsening political situation in the world. But I was hopeful about the future. I was aware of the climate change and its dangers, but here in Sweden we will be quite spared of its effects. So I was not worried about this either, at least not immediately. Even the news about a looming recession that was quite spread back in 2019 had disappeared from the media. I was very content with where we were in life. We had moved to our dream apartment back in the summer of 2019 and we were busy with small renovation projects. Both Aneta and I have great jobs in big Swedish companies, so we are quite safe in that aspect. The stock market has been going well and our savings and our pension money were growing at a nice pace. Emili will start elementary school in the autumn which means that our travels would become limited by the school year, so we planned to travel extensively before the school start. We would visit Izmir, Copenhagen, Dalarna, Skopje, Zagreb, Åre, Madeira and Sao Miguel, possibly also Lofoten. Emili was very happy at her kindergarten. Our biggest problem was not having enough time to meet our friends. And whether Emili would be assigned an elementary school one or two kilometers away from our home. All our worries were classical first world problems. Life was good.
A strange weekend
I am forwarding back to mid March, just after the turning point. Friday night and Saturday morning were bad. I could not help thinking about how fragile our society was. How far are we from a complete meltdown? Are the best years behind us? Why cannot I get my share of the optimistic sixties and seventies from the last century? Why does the world have to fall apart when I am in my thirties, in my prime? Those were the kind of questions that were going through my head. It was the first time in my adult life that the future did not feel bright.
Aneta and I were discussing whether we should stay at home. But we could not, we wanted to get out, the weather was great, Emili needed to spend her excess energy and I was too curious about how the city looked like. We were worried that this might have been a stupid decision, but we were not ready to go into isolation yet. And it was not mandated by the Swedish authorities either so we would not be doing anything illegal. The city was surprisingly alive, there was a lot of people outside, but also in restaurants and cafes. We went to take a look at a future landmark of Stockholm, the new golden bridge at Slussen that had arrived just a couple of days before (the bridge is shown in the title image of this blog post, as a symbol of hope for the future). It was moored at Stadsgårdskajen, waiting for it to be mounted in place. The nice weather and the bridge provided a nice getaway from the virus outbreak, an illusion of normal life. However, the virus kept coming back as the main conversation topic for Aneta and me.
Sweden against the world
During the weekend multiple countries in Europe already had isolation of varying levels in place. The worst situation was in Italy where all businesses except pharmacies and grocery stores were closed and people were not allowed to move freely. Social media was full of posts by people pleading to the Swedish government to order the same level of isolation as in Italy. But Sweden chose a strategy of letting the virus spread through the healthy part of the society while isolating only the categories at risk (the elderly and the sick). The goal was to build heard immunity. Another goal, not explicitly stated, was to avoid halting the economy and triggering a recession. What might not be apparent is that each recession takes its own toll on lives through increased stress, alcoholism and depression. In Europe only the UK was taking the same approach, but even they announced that they are changing their strategy on Monday the 16th.
Another aspect of how Sweden was handling the crisis differently was that the government took a step back and let the experts at Folkhälsomyndigheten (the public health agency) call the shots. Whether letting the experts run the show through facts rather than emotions was visionary or a sign of a lack of leadership is impossible to tell at the moment. What is quite evident in social media on the other hand is that the prevailing sentiment among the people seems to be calling for stronger political moves. I am not sure why people feel safer being led by political rather than scientific decisions. Talking about political decisions, from Thursday March 19th all businesses except pharmacies and grocery stores would be closed in Croatia.
At the time I am writing this, it has been one week since the turning point. These are the changes I am observing in everyday life. We are trying to keep living normally, but normal life has been put on hold. All we talk about is the virus outbreak. The atmosphere is surreal. Our savings and pensions are in red. We have cancelled most of our trips. If we are lucky, we will spend Easter doing small one day road trips in and around Stockholm (we booked a rental car). If we are unlucky, we will be confined to our home.
Working from home is the new norm for Aneta and me. Being a manager, Aneta has many meetings. An apartment with an open layout was not designed for work from home beside somebody that is constantly in meetings. I am considering to move my work desk from the living room to the guest room. By doing so I will get a door between Aneta and me. We are still taking Emili to kindergarten each day. Whether that is brave, normal or stupid, I have no idea. Her group is down from the usual twenty kids to ten. But she enjoys her days there, and for the overall mental health of the family I think it is better that she is there instead of being installed in front of the TV while we are trying to work.
From yesterday the high schools and universities are closed. The government is trying to figure out what to do with kids of people working in critical services such as police and medical workers in case the kindergartens and elementary schools also need to be shut down.
Individual businesses are temporarily closing. The crisis is hitting restaurant and cafe owners hard. I have a friend running an event company, she is facing cancellation after cancellation. When it comes to bigger actors, hotels and airlines are on their knees. SAS is temporarily releasing 90% of their staff of work assignments. With governmental help, they are keeping their salaries for the time being. But what will happen if people on a larger scale become unable to pay their loans and rents?
My team mate from our office in Krakow is on vacation in Columbia. I have no idea how he will come back home. His flight to Madrid is still scheduled but the flight from Madrid to Krakow has been cancelled. If he tries to enter Poland by land, there is a 60 kilometer car queue on the border from Germany.
To protect public bus drivers in Stockholm, commuters are not to board from the front anymore. Filmstaden closed down the cinemas. Shopping malls are cutting their opening hours.
Interestingly, more and more digital content is being released for free. Streaming movies, theater plays, opera and ballet, e-books…
The wonderful engagement
A positive aspect of the crisis is the wonderful engagement we see from most of the population. The virus outbreak has brought out the best in most of us, we will do what it takes to help our fellow humans. We are ready to temporarily give up the freedoms and comforts that we are used to because we are striving for a greater goal. Imagine if we could do this proactively rather than reactively in the future. Imagine if we could declare war on climate change and wealth inequality, and show the same determination as we are showing now to also solve these issues.
I believe that this crisis will be recorded in history as the biggest challenge modern society has faced since World War II. Its scale, reach and impact are universal. How it will continue to develop we cannot tell, we can only speculate. As trying to predict the future is difficult, so I will not do so. I will only state some (possibly leading) questions.
How long will the crisis last? How deep will it go? How much will it hurt our standard of living? Is hurting the standard necessarily a bad thing? Could the crisis be used as an opportunity to fix some of the biggest challenges that our society faces? Could we reduce consumerism and the strain on our planet? Could we reduce the wealth inequality in the world? Could we take the opportunity to redefine the prevailing economic system we have in place today? Is the crisis a nudge towards universal basic income (about which I wrote here)? Could the crisis result with my daughter living in a better world in twenty years from now?
I will end with a quote from a close friend: “If the world becomes a better place after this crisis, the losses I have made at the stock market will have been a small price to pay.” I fully agree with her!