More than four months have passed since the first case of COVID-19 had reached Sweden. Also, more than four months have passed since I started my PhD in Sweden. Three months have passed since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic. How did the pandemic impact my PhD in a country that is viewed as following a complete different strategy than other countries? A country, that faced many deaths and is still facing many new cases in relation to its inhabitants? Let me tell you about my experience during the last months.
First things first: Needless to say that I am aware that I can still consider myself very lucky. I did not lose my job, my loved ones have been save, and so far I managed to stay healthy myself. I’m not writing this post to complain, but just to give some insight into how the COVID-19 outbreak has changed my life and plans.
Making Big Plans Before the Pandemic
2020 started off as a very promising year. I had just finished my master’s in neurosciences with distinction and was damn proud as I was the first one to attend a university in my family. I moved into a new apartment in January and was excitedly looking forward to start my PhD at Gothenburg University mid of February. My PI and I were planning that the meeting of the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society should be my first international conference where I would present the results of my master’s thesis in a poster presentation. Furthermore, we were planning some additional experiments to finish up my project. Besides work, I was invited to give a short talk at a science communication conference in Germany (WissKon) and planned to be a soapbox science speaker during the science festival in Gothenburg. I was happy, proud, and extremely enthusiastic about 2020, so I started applying to travel grants, submitted my abstract for the conference, became a member of the society, booked flights, …
Starting my PhD Journey
Though it was very shocking to hear that SARS-CoV-2 had reached Sweden at the beginning of February, it still felt very unreal and life was going on as usual. We all became a bit more conscious about washing our hands, but when it came to keeping distance it was nearly impossible as me and other fellow PhD students had to participate in the mandatory PhD introduction course for three weeks. But again, at that point the situation still felt surreal and was not considered a pandemic yet. During those weeks though, things changed quite a lot, the situation in Italy started to escalate and we were all wondering when and if Sweden would introduce some measures, soon. Some colleagues of mine witnessed their first conferences being cancelled, and I was worrying that it would happen to mine, too. In a sense, however, we were lucky that we had this course before cases in Sweden started to rise more drastically.
When the Pandemic Kicked in
I think it was at the beginning of march when we were starting to expect a lock-down in Sweden. We still didn’t receive a lot of official communication other than staying home if we are sick, but several PIs started to send around e-mails saying that we should be ‘prepared to work from home at any moment’. At that point I became a bit insecure. Should I still follow the plan and start my experiments next week, and risk that they get interrupted leading to weeks of work being worthless? Or should I postpone them and start at a time where it was more certain that the university would not shut down? After discussing this issue with my PI I decided to postpone my experiments and work from home. I didn’t know whether this was a good decision. I still don’t know for sure. It might have thrown me back a lot. I like to get things done and love to have new results. But I am also not a data producing machine. At the time of the decision I was a scared new PhD student living abroad, far from family and friends, in a country that didn’t want to introduce any measures meanwhile it seemed like ‘the world was going down’ in other countries. And fortunately, my PI understood.
Working from Home While Experiencing ‘Weltschmerz’
Working from home and physically distancing was a roller coaster of feelings. I enjoyed that I could sleep a little bit longer because I was saving the way to work. I also enjoyed that I could work from my balcony on a sunny day. I had enough things to do as my PhD introduction course came with a ton of assignments, I needed to do some writing, participated in a lot of online seminars and courses (such as a great science visualization course that I unfortunately didn’t finish yet), and we had weekly online journal clubs. Additionally, I was still working on a visa for going abroad in the fall, but I slowly started to realize that this won’t be feasible. Of course it was irresponsible to go abroad during a pandemic. However, we had planned this for more than a year and it was supposed to be an essential part of my PhD. My whole research plan was based on it. And now this plan had to go overboard. I probably don’t need to point out that all of my conferences and speaking opportunities for this year got cancelled, too. This left me clueless about my future on the PhD journey. Of course it was not only me who’s plans were impacted and needed to be completely changed. However, a lot of fellow PhD students from the introduction course started a bit earlier than me and already had publications and had been to conferences before. Would I still make enough progress in my first year? Will I have a problem later on on the job market?
As for many others, the weeks working from home were a constant up and down. On some days, I felt like everything will be alright, on others I was scared for my friends and family, scared for myself, and scared for all the people in the world. I was checking the German and Swedish news and new publications on COVID-19 regularly. I felt something that we describe as Weltschmerz (= world pain) in German, which was further fed by the killing of George Floyd and the sadly more than necessary Black Lives Matter movement.
It was hard to be so far away from my family, especially my grandparents, who are getting old. Usually, it is quite easy (and often cheap) for me to go on a weekend trip to Germany to visit them. I was already living in Sweden during my master’s thesis, and went to visit them a couple of times. But now it has been 6 months without seeing them and the only way to talk to my grandparents is on the phone. The only way to have a video call with them was through my parents, but they are also not able to visit them as a precaution.
I was Angry
Meanwhile Germany and other countries were taking action, quite successfully introducing measures to limit the spread of the virus, it felt like Sweden was (and is) not doing anything. The whole world was standing still, but somehow not in Sweden. People had lost their jobs, other people had lost their lives or loved ones. Whole countries were locked down, medical personnel was working day and night to save lives. And here, people enjoyed the sun, went to bars and restaurants, and even clubs remained open for quite a long time. Bread, yeast, toilet paper, and sanitizer was empty, but at the same time you saw public places PACKED on social media. It felt paradox, as if the pandemic was not real. I was angry. I was mostly angry, because Sweden was not even testing people properly (only people admitted to the hospital), I started to feel unsafe. And I was sharing this feeling with other expats.
It is of course not true that Sweden did not do anything. They introduced some measures such as limiting events to 50 people, introducing distance learning for teenager and university students, and recommending to stay home when feeling sick. However, it is true that the measures are not as strong as in other countries. And until this day, the use of masks is for example still not recommended. Also, every lab at the university was handling things differently – some moved work completely home, whereas others did not change anything.
Sweden had a Different Approach to the Pandemic, and it Shows
We still cannot say which was the best way to deal with the pandemic, as it is still ongoing. We don’t know the ultimate outcome yet. What we do know is, that Sweden, compared to other countries, still faces a lot of new cases daily. While other countries are opening up and travel warnings are starting to be removed, a federal state of Germany (lower saxony) introduced a quarantine of 14 days, and Denmark, Norway, and Finland will leave their borders closed for people coming from Sweden (for now). The part of Germany where my family comes from for example, does not have any active cases at the moment, allowing for (responsible) social activities again. Spain will be opening up for tourists. Here in Sweden though, it feels like there is no end in sight, and the worst might be still to come. I hope for the best and though my plans for this year have been cancelled completely, I am happy that I and my loved ones are healthy – and that’s all that counts. Since a week I have stopped working from home and started experiments at the university again. I am mostly alone in the lab, and still physically distance from other people as much as possible. If the pandemic had one good thing, it was definitely that it improved my Swedish skills massively as I am reading Swedish news nonstop!
I wish you all the best, stay safe! ❤
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