Tue 26 October 2021

A Swedish journalist last week exemplified the nation’s dangerous, outlier approach to COVID-19, explains Kelly Bjorklund

It was painful to watch.

Last Tuesday night, election night in the United States, Ann-Britt Ryd Pettersson, a reporter for Swedish Public Television (SVT) interviewed a Pennsylvania voter at her local polling station in Scranton.

Maddie Conway was not named in the interview, but I managed to track her down. She is a graduate student at the University of Scranton, hoping to become a student counsellor. She also has cerebral palsy, which makes her an at-risk individual during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pettersson stood mere inches away from her interviewee, without a mask on, speaking above Conway who was masked and seated in her wheelchair.

“As a 26-year-old with a physical disability, this election and COVID-19 has been on my mind incessantly. I was very excited to cast my vote. I was proud to share my voice in this election. When I was approached by a reporter, I was proud to share my voice,” Conway said. “I knew something seemed strange. When I realised the reporter wasn’t wearing a mask, I was shocked and angry, due to my COVID-19 concerns.”

University of Scranton student Maddie Conway.

Conway told Pettersson she voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris because she thinks they can help to unite America again.

“What I forgot to include was that I also voted for them because I believe in their plan to keep us safe, and I believe in mandating mask wearing to get this virus under control,” she told Byline Times.

When I asked a Pennsylvania election official what they would say to a reporter without a mask, she answered: “That it’s the law in Pennsylvania to wear a mask. If a Sheriff saw anyone not wearing a mask, they would ask the offender to leave.”

As cases, hospitalisations and deaths associated with COVID-19 rise in Sweden, adding to one of the highest death tolls per capita in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University data, masks are still not recommended. Public Health Agency Director Johan Carlson said on 3 November that, “It does not help to wear a mask if you are sitting in a full train carriage. I cannot imagine that.”

This is despite more than 70 scientific studies which provide convincing evidence for the effectiveness of masks.

Statistics in the UK show that disabled people are more at risk from COVID-19. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), disabled people account for 42.7% of those between the ages of 9 and 64 who have died from the disease. This appears also to be the case in Sweden.

“As a marginalised group, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected us,” says Swedish disability rights advocate Eric Hammarstrand. “And the numbers are even worse in care homes for people with disabilities.”

Masks are only recommended in Swedish healthcare if the patient has or is suspected of having COVID-19. “It causes me concern to see a journalist without a mask, who approaches an at-risk person without worrying about it,” says Dr. Manuel Felices, head of endocrine surgery at Norra Älvsborgs Hospital. “It is part of the Swedish denial and an unnecessary risk to a patient at risk.”

Masks are recommended by 177 countries. Yet, nine months into the pandemic, the Swedish Government is stubbornly resistant to their health benefits. “We do not have that culture,” Minister of Health Lena Hallengren said on 29 July.

“When I left the interview, I did some research about the mask policy in Sweden and was shocked to learn that they actually discourage masks,” Conway told Byline Times. “What I would say to Sweden is this: listen to the science and the facts… No life is expendable, and as a woman with a disability, that includes mine.”

No one should have to put their life at risk to vote. No one should have to put their health at risk to tell their story.

The refusal of the Swedish Government to recommend masks puts the lives of doctors, patients and the general population at risk. And now, people like Maddie Conway and the American public too.

SVT General Director Hanna Stjärne did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment, while SVT Communications Director Jan Helin declined to comment. The full SVT interview can be viewed here at 2 hours and 52 minutes into the broadcast.

Kelly Bjorklund is a writer and human rights activist who has worked on public policy and advocacy with elected officials, civil society and media in the US, UK and Europe. Contact her by email:


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