Thorild Tollefsbøl was born in Norway but has lived in Sweden, with the border in her backyard, for more than 70 years. She could hardly believe her ears when one day last spring on her daily walk in the woods near the small farm town of Lersjön she came across a uniformed soldier from the Norwegian Home Guard who told her to turn around and return to the Swedish side. “We never thought much about the fact that some houses were on the other side,” said Tollefsbøl about the time before covid.
Europe’s longest land border is the one that divides Norway and Sweden. For the most part, it is marked with a little more than a 10-meter clearing in the forest and the occasional welcome sign at the roadside, accompanied by mostly unmanned customs stations reminders that when you drive into Norway you leave the EU.
But during the pandemic, friendly road signs were replaced with checkpoints. Sweden hands-off approach to the pandemic, it left 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 concern: that Covid may have eroded the strong sense of community among the Nordic peoples, carried similarities in language and culture and which they have always been proud of.
After 562 days of application of social distancing, Norway this week abolished its remaining pandemic travel restrictions for fully vaccinated. The last closed border crossings to Sweden will also reopen. The first hard border between the two countries in decades has relaxed again.
But some are afraid that the hostility triggered by the pandemic has left its mark. The traffic almost dried up for more than a year, and some border communities are bitter about the severity of the economic hardship they went through.
When the pandemic was at its height, Swedes living or working in other parts of the Nordic region reported that they felt stigmatized due to their government’s lockdown strategy.
“I think we have taken our relationship for granted,” said Anna Hallberg, Sweden’s Minister for Nordic Affairs. While acknowledging that Sweden did worse than its neighbors in fighting the virus, she worried that a strengthening of the rhetoric between the countries could have a lasting effect.
I have been amazed at how quickly what can be called the “dangerous face” of nationalism has emerged in our interpersonal relationships, with the concept of “us and them”. I think many of us thought we were immune to it, says Hallberg, adding that centuries of common history had created a region that looked like a welded region. “We thought we had moved past all this, that we were so civilized and that the Nordics were like a family. That did not turn out to be the case. ”
Despite the fact that Norway is not a member of the EU, the Nordic economic region is one of the most closely integrated in the world. For more than 60 years, people have had the right to study, work and settle in another Nordic country, a system that is 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 – contributed to the creation of a single labor 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 Schengen pass-free travel area.
“There has never been a real border there for me,” says 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 meters from the border, but thought a little about the clearing in the forest. “We used to go sledding down the hill, and then we just ended up on the other side. When we were going to swim, we did not think twice about which side of the line we were on – it is the same water, “she said. But after Covid, until recently every time she came close to the border, her phone buzzed with an automated message from the Norwegian health authorities.
Bernhus does not consider his Norwegian husband a foreigner, but fears it with so much talk about “Importing infections” During the pandemic, attitudes towards Swedes in Norway have changed. “I think the way we are perceived on the other side has changed. When you drive on the road in a Swedish car, people turn around to look at you “, she said. “Previously, we Swedes were considered an attractive workforce in Norway. Now there seems to be an attitude that we should go home. ”
The Norwegian government went further than most European countries to limit international travel. Unlike Denmark, which issued exemptions for Swedes living in regions near the Öresund Bridge, which connects the two countries, Norway prevented travelers from high-risk regions. Until the EU vaccination certificate came into force in July, this meant that 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 ski trail that crosses the border into the forest was blocked during the winter, and the Norwegian police informed skiers that they could be fined if they skied into Sweden. A group of Norwegians with holiday homes in Sweden even sued his own government over the fact that they could not spend a night in them without going into quarantine hotels when they returned to Norway.
Jan Tore Sanner, Norway’s Minister of Finance, who oversees Nordic co – operation, said: “Closed borders obviously have negative consequences, but if we had not taken these measures we would see more people become infected, become ill and more people would die.” With just over 800 reported deaths related to covid, Norway kept infection levels much lower than most countries.
Sanner said he was convinced that the feeling of neighborly love between Nordic peoples would return. Not everyone is so safe. “On really big shopping days, we can have a queue that is several hundred meters long outside the liquor store,” says Kent Hansson, the mayor of Strömstad, a Swedish city on the Bohuslän coast that strongly relies on Norwegian tourists and cross-border shoppers. During the border closure, revenues in his city fell by almost two thirds and unemployment increased by 700%.
The mayor worries that the economic downturn will not be the one that leaves the deepest scars long after all restrictions have been lifted.
“We saw a sharp increase in polarization 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 harsh strategy that caused unnecessary economic damage to their border towns. “In my experience, we have seen an increase in nationalism, it just feels wrong. We began to humiliate each other. ”
The small red timber chapel in Lersjön is located in Sweden. Its bell tower over the farm is located in Norway. The pastor, Günter Hölscher, explained how he crossed the clearing to ring the bell for the weekly Sunday service, paying a fine. “Suddenly, people got a hard line through their lives,” he said, nodding toward the border markers.
Hölscher and Tollefsbøl, parishioners, said that the depth of a split that the pandemic may also have caused, the longing to reconnect with loved ones on the other side was stronger. “I just hope we can gather here again this Christmas,” said Tollefsbøl. “And that people from both sides can handle it.”