Who is left behind?

A report written by Nordregio Research Fellows Hjördis Rut Sigurjonsdottir and Sandra Oliveira e Costa investigates what happened in two Swedish suburbs that were badly affected by the COVID19 pandemic, and the causes for things unfolding the way they did.

What happened in the suburbs?

Järva in Stockholm and Rosengård in Malmö are the focus of a study and report released by Nordregio researchers in collaboration with the Nordic Welfare Centre. Immigrants heavily populate the two suburbs, and both reported a high rate of infections with the COVID19 virus. Discussions in the media about the high number of cases in two Swedish suburbs predominantly inhabited by immigrants sparked the interest of Nordregio Research Fellows Sandra Oliveira e Costa and Hjördis Rut Sigurjonsdottir. Having worked with a report that looked into patterns and reasons for cities being segregated, they decided to dig deeper into this and paint a picture of why the spread of the virus hit Järva and Rosengård so badly, and how multiple layers of inequality and the phenomenon of segregation had a significant impact during the pandemic we are still going through. Bringing in their social and geographic perspective and expertise, the researchers decided to investigate why certain areas close to Stockholm were hit hardest by the pandemic. “We didn’t try to identify exactly why or how the infection spread, but rather, what kind of structural barriers there might have existed against following the recommendations for how to hamper the spread and protect yourself from the virus,” says Sandra Oliveira e Costa. The study, part of the Nordic Cooperation Programme for Integration of Immigrants, in which Nordic Welfare Centre and Nordregio cooperate, was structured around the recommendations issued by the Swedish Health Authority and how these were or were not easy to follow by people living in the two focus suburbs.

The results from the research showed that several factors influenced the more extensive spread of COVID19 in Rosengård and Järva, compared to other regions, and that for the majority of the people living there, following some of the recommendations proved to be impossible. “Work from home” and “Avoid public transport” are two main messages from the Swedish National Health Agency circulating for the past year and a half. And these seem like simple things that are possible to do, but not for everyone, as it turns out. For many people living in areas such as Rosengård and Järva, the number of people living in a household is above average, many are dependent on their paychecks without getting compensation for sick leave, and/or have jobs that require physical presence, these rules become more difficult to follow.

“They formulate recommendations mainly on risk factors”, says Hjördis Rut Sigurjonsdottir about the recommendations put in place to contain the spread of the pandemic. “But you can see that the only risk factor that is favourable for these neighbourhoods is the age structure. All the others are unfavourable. There are a lot of structural barriers in these two areas.” One of the most significant and clear conclusions surfacing from the study was a digital barrier that can not be ignored any longer. The study revealed that for many people in Järva and Rosengård, using technology to book PCR tests or the vaccine was not accessible.

The current study focuses solely on how the pandemic unfolded and how it affected more certain neighbourhoods in Sweden because of logistical reasons and the virus severely hit the country. “We see that other cities also have these possible structural barriers accumulating in similar neighbourhoods. Both neighbourhoods have a high share of foreign-born and register some of the lowest income levels in their respective cities. People work to a higher degree in sectors that can be more vulnerable to the virus, due to many social contacts in the service and health care sectors, for example, and have to some degree more overcrowding than other neighbourhoods. And if we look at the literature from other countries, their foreign-born population has been more affected, considerably more affected than the native-born population in all those countries. So, even though the situation has not been nearly as difficult as in other countries, we still believe that these learnings from the Swedish case could still be useful for others to consider at least”, says Hjördis Rut Sigurjonsdottir.

The situation is full of complexities and sensitivities, as the top-down approach adopted by the authorities was perhaps easier to handle on the spot by them, but, it is clear now, in hindsight, that it overlooked the needs and specificities of a more vulnerable part of society, one that would require a more tailored approach.

How do local actors see the issue?

This sentiment was echoed by Helene Hede, process lead and activity coordinator, and Fardosa Omar, Operations Manager at Rinkeby Folkets Hus. “So, in addition to being an actor in the neighbourhood that acts quickly to meet needs, we’re also the link between the people and the public agencies and the other public actors in the neighbourhood”, says Helena about their role within the Rinkeby community. Among their day-to-day tasks, organising activities for children and parents living in the Rinkeby area is an important one. When the pandemic hit, they were forced to reorganise their modus operandi and meet people in outdoor spaces. “Some of them became jobless, some of them have parents at home that they had to look after. So, we just created a free zone, a space for the kids and their parents to come and just relax. And we can lead different types of activities. Especially things like just giving away pen and paper and colours made a lot of difference. And we could just dance, we could just barbecue outside and set a stereo. Children needed just that”, says Fardosa about their approach to continue having a social life in the neighbourhood. Besides these activities, Helena and Fardosa realised that a shift in their approach to meeting people’s needs was necessary, and they acted quickly. The digital barrier is yet again mentioned during the conversation with Helene and Fardosa, saying that everyone in the society does not easily manoeuvre the very digitised system implemented in Sweden. “The information that was out there was for the majority to understand, but the majority knows how to get the right information and where to get it from. And this is quite a different neighbourhood. We have to emphasise that,” says Helena.

The relationship with the national and regional healthcare agencies is complicated at times. It requires a lot of proactivity from the local actors, as was the case with the placement of buses that offered PCR testing. Rinkeby was an area that was excluded from the list, and an intervention was needed for this mishap to be remedied. This situation happened again when the vaccine awareness and roll-out started. Another interesting difference that resurfaced due to the pandemic is that for Swedish society, the idea of recommendations is innate, with people being used to following them. But there is also another part of the society, a diaspora of people coming from other countries from whom the law is what they know of and obey. The idea of recommendations proved to be confusing at times, and it didn’t help express or explain the severity of the situation.

How do we go from here?

The main takeaway from the study is the imperative and urgent need for civil society to be involved in the decision-making process instead of just being informed about decisions that they have to bring to the community. “One thing that was communicated to us, and also that we saw is that the civil society also has quite a good understanding about what kind of recommendations and what kind of actions would make a difference. And it seems like they could have been used more for actually participating in formulating actions”, concludes Sandra Oliveira e Costa.

When asked about solutions, the response from the local actors is that there is a stringent need for a dialogue between authorities and the people on the ground. On a bigger scale, more diversity, an understanding of the background and culture of the people living in such areas, and representation are crucial for people making decisions that impact society. A more collaborative approach, more flexibility when it comes to processes, experimenting with new strategies, and remembering that some neighbourhoods cannot be treated in the same manner as the whole of Stockholm because people have different opportunities and are faced with other challenges are some of the strategies that need to be revised and changed, in order not to repeat the mistakes that the pandemic brought to the surface. “More humane approaches”, says Fardosa Omar, “that’s all we ask for.”

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