‘We were like family’: how Covid strained bonds between Nordic neighbours | Europe

Thorild Tollefsbøl was born in Norway but has lived in Sweden, with the border in her back yard, for more than 70 years. She could hardly believe her ears when, while out for her daily walk in the woods near the small farm town of Lersjön one day last spring, she encountered a uniformed soldier from the Norwegian Home Guard who told her to turn around and walk back to the Swedish side. “We never really gave much thought to the fact that some houses were on the other side,” Tollefsbøl said of pre-Covid times.

Europe’s longest land border is the one that divides Norway and Sweden. For the most part, it is marked by little more than a 10-metre clearing in the woods and the occasional roadside welcome sign, accompanied by mostly unmanned customs stations – reminders that when you drive into Norway you are leaving the EU.

But during the pandemic, friendly road signs were swapped for checkpoints. Sweden’s hands-off approach to the pandemic left it with Covid-19 infection and death rates per capita higher than the figures for Norway, Denmark and Finland combined. As a result, these countries closed their borders to Swedes. Outbreaks of virus-related nationalism caused another worry: that Covid might have corroded the powerful sense of community among Nordic peoples, borne of similarities in language and culture and in which they have always taken immense pride.

The clearing in the woods marking the border between Norway and Sweden.
The clearing in the woods marking the border between Norway and Sweden. Photograph: Trygve Skogseth/The Guardian

After 562 days of enforcing social distancing, Norway this week scrapped its remaining pandemic travel restrictions for fully vaccinated people. The last closed border crossings to Sweden are also reopening. The first hard border between the two countries for decades has been relaxed again.

Yet, some fear that the animosity triggered by the pandemic has left a mark. Traffic all but dried up for more than a year, and some border communities are bitter about the severity of the economic hit they endured.

At the height of the pandemic, Swedes living or working in other parts of the Nordic region reported feeling stigmatised because of their government’s lockdown approach.

“I think we have taken our relationship for granted,” Anna Hallberg, Sweden’s minister for Nordic affairs, said. While she acknowledged that Sweden fared worse than its neighbours in containing the virus, she worried that a hardening of the rhetoric between the countries might leave a lasting impact.

Thorild Tollefsbøl  with the border in the background
Thorild Tollefsbøl grew up with the border in her backyard. Photograph: Trygve Skogseth/The Guardian

“I’ve been surprised by how fast what could be called the ‘dangerous face of nationalism’ has surfaced in our interpersonal relationships, with the notion of ‘us and them’. I think a lot of us thought we were immune against that,” Hallberg said, adding that centuries of shared history had created what looked like a tight-knit region. “We thought we had moved past all that, that we were so civilised, and that the Nordics were just like a family. That turned out to not be the case.”

Despite Norway not being an EU member, the Nordic economic region is one of the most tightly integrated in the world. For more than 60 years, people have enjoyed the right to study, work and settle in another Nordic country, a scheme older than the EU’s freedom of movement. Similar languages in Norway, Sweden and Denmark – and Swedish as one of the official languages in Finland – helped to create a single labour market, with more than 50,000 people crossing an intra-Nordic border on their way to work every day – before the pandemic. Both Norway and Sweden are in the Schengen passport-free travel area.

“There has never been a real border there for me,” said Sofia Bernhus, who commutes to her job in Norway from her home near the small town of Töcksfors, in western Sweden. She grew up with her grandparents 50 metres from the border, but gave the clearing in the woods little thought. “We used to go sledding down the hill, and then we would just end up on the other side. When we’d go swimming, we didn’t think twice about what side of the line we were on – it’s the same water,” she said. But after Covid, until recently every time she got near the border her phone buzzed with an automated message from the Norwegian health authorities.

Sofia Bernhus
Sofia Bernhus, who commutes to her job in Norway, never considered herself a foreigner. Now she fears attitudes towards Swedes have shifted. Photograph: Trygve Skogseth/The Guardian

Bernhus does not regard her Norwegian husband as a foreigner, but fears that with so much talk of “import infections” during the pandemic, attitudes towards Swedes in Norway have shifted. “I think the way we are perceived on the other side has changed. When you drive down the road in a Swedish car, people turn around to look at you”, she said. “In the past, us Swedes were looked at as an attractive workforce in Norway. Now there seems to be an attitude that we should go back home.”

The Norwegian government went further than most European countries in curbing international travel. Unlike Denmark, which issued exemptions for Swedes living in regions close to the Öresund bridge, which connects the two countries, Norway barred travellers from high-risk regions. Until EU vaccination certificates came into effect in July, that meant most Swedes who did not live or work in Norway were subject to entry bans or mandatory quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status.

In Töcksfors, the local cross-country skiing track that crosses the border in the woods was barricaded off during winter, with the Norwegian police notifying skiers that they could be fined if they skied into Sweden. A group of Norwegians with holiday homes in Sweden even sued their own government over the fact that they were unable to spend a night in them without going into quarantine hotels on their return to Norway.

Jan Tore Sanner, Norway’s finance minister, who oversees Nordic cooperation, said: “Closed borders obviously have negative consequences, but if we had not taken these measures, we would see more people get infected, get sick, and more people would die.” With just over 800 reported Covid-related deaths, Norway kept infection levels much lower than most countries.

Kent Hansson next to town hall
Kent Hansson, the mayor of Strömstad, worries that the fallout between Norwegians and Swedes may linger. Photograph: Trygve Skogseth/The Guardian

Sanner said he was confident that the sense of neighbourly love between Nordic peoples would return. Not everyone is so sure. “On really big shopping days, we could have a queue several hundred meters long outside the liquor store,” said Kent Hansson, the mayor of Strömstad, a Swedish town on the Bohuslän coast that relies heavily on Norwegian tourists and cross-border shoppers. During the border closure, revenues in his town dropped by almost two-thirds and unemployment rocketed by 700%.

The mayor worries that the economic fallout won’t be what leaves the deepest scars long after all restrictions are lifted.

“We saw a sharp rise in polarisation on both sides,” Hansson said. While some Norwegians were quick to blame Sweden for not keeping infection levels down, some Swedes blamed Norway for a hardline approach that caused needless economic harm to their border towns. “In my experience we have seen an increased nationalism, that just feels wrong. We started denigrating each other.”

The tiny red timber chapel in Lersjön is in Sweden. Its bell tower across the yard is in Norway. Lighting his pipe on the chapel stairs the pastor, Günter Hölscher, explained how just walking across the clearing to ring the bell for the weekly Sunday service meant incurring a fine. “All of a sudden, people had a hard line drawn through their lives,” he said, nodding towards the border markings.

Hölscher and Tollefsbøl, a parishioner, said that however deep a division the pandemic might have caused, the longing to reconnect with loved ones on the other side was stronger. “I just hope that we can gather here again this Christmas,” Tollefsbøl said. “And that people from both sides can make it”.

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