Falling off the cliff: Mythical sacrifice mirrored in Sweden’s COVID-19 response

By Carolina Johnson, Oberlin College

Ättestupa is the Swedish word given to a number of steep cliffs. The myth of the ättestupa holds that in prehistoric Nordic times, older community members would throw themselves off a precipice for the sake of the greater good during famines or crises. The harrowing myth of ritual sacrifice has shown up in recent popular culture, such as in the comedy series Norsemen and in the folk horror film Midsommar.

Photo by Steven Erixon on Unsplash

More than folklore, ättestupan also has a history of being politically weaponized. Following the end of WWII, working class writer Ivar Lo Johansson opposed the government’s push for long term care facilities and used the folkloric ideas around ättestupan to argue that the attitude toward older members of society could be traced back to the ritual practice. Johansson likened the brutal tradition to modern long-term care facilities where people could rid themselves of their older family members (“Där De Äldre dör” 2018; Odén 1970).

The Swedish response to COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, sacrifice has not been a distant concept. The Swedish pandemic response has been associated with the herd immunity approach: the idea that natural immunity should be built up in the population by either slow or fast spread of infection in order to protect society at-large (Anderberg 2020; Rosenthal 2021). In effect, the more vulnerable members of society would be sacrificed for the greater good.

The Swedish Public Health Authority (PHA), which led the Swedish response to the COVID-19 pandemic, denies that it ever pursued herd immunity as a goal of its strategy (Ludvigsson 2020). While similarities with other countries’ handling of the novel virus can certainly be found, Sweden’s approach undoubtedly defied the norm. The PHA showed little interest in building up capacity for testing, while many other countries did the very opposite (Andersson and Aylott 2020; Bendix 2020; Pierre 2020). Furthermore, they didn’t require households to quarantine when one household member fell ill with COVID-19. They kept restaurants, bars, shopping malls and other similar venues open[1] (Ludvigsson 2020).

Un/masking gaps in strategy

Face masks have also become an aspect of the pandemic where the PHA deviated from most countries (Larsson and Björklund 2020). Calling them dangerous at worst and useless at best, the PHA has continuously excluded face masks from their pandemic strategy (Hedenvind 2020; Svahn 2020). Social medicine and health policy researcher Martin Lindström notes that a simple question was often lacking in conversations around the pandemic response in Sweden: “What was the point of very loose restrictions and holding even bars, restaurants and skiing venues open if the goal was not to achieve herd immunity?” (2020, 3).

The PHA was hoping that the evidence of a widespread level of population immunity, in the form of antibodies against COVID-19 proven by mass testing, could redeem the reputation of their strategy. When results of the antibody testing came out in early summer 2020 it was shown that the level of immunity was much lower than predicted (Larsson 2020), revealing that herd immunity could not be achieved through widespread infection (Bjorklund and Ewing 2020). Even so, the strategy has remained largely intact and so has the group of people in charge of it.

Social distancing? (Photo by C. Johnson)

Laterza and Römer (2020) write, in a Somatosphere post, that the proposal to actively pursue herd immunity has “a disturbing necropolitical implication: large numbers of people would die…in the process of building immunity, and these would be disproportionately older people and people with underlying conditions.” From the beginning of the pandemic, the PHA stated explicitly that their goal was to “protect the older and the frail.” Sticking to their “individual responsibility” approach, the PHA told older individuals to make sure they stayed away from other family members, friends, the grocery store, and essentially anything that could put them at-risk (Häggkvist och Rosvall 2020; Sveriges Radio 2020). Among other recommendations, the PHA also encouraged people to work from home to stay safe, if they could (Ludvigsson 2020, 2465).

Community ethics, individualized response

The ethical problem with a pandemic response that relies almost solely on individual responsibility lies in the failure to appreciate the interconnectedness of society, which leads to an unequal distribution of illness, suffering, and death. Medical anthropologist Annette Leibing notes that “the COVID-19 crisis is forcing scholars, as well as the general population, to recognize the existence of a concrete link between the State, society and interpersonal relations” (2020, 222).

The PHA made many assumptions. They assumed that older individuals generally don’t live in multigenerational households and could easily isolate themselves from other family members who were not asked to follow stringent recommendations (Mena 2020). They assumed that Swedish public transportation was not crowded, as it presumably is in “other places,” therefore deeming face masks useless even in public transportation (“Aktuellt 07-22-20”).[2]

In the Stockholm area, a majority (55%) of the population in fact do not have an occupation that allows them to work from home. For example, bus drivers, teachers, and shop employees have not been able to follow the PHA recommendation to work from home. Generally, those with jobs that have to be performed “in-person” have also had to take public transportation more frequently (Tottmar 2020).

Making vulnerability

The PHA made vulnerable groups invisible in a strategy preaching individual responsibility and judgement. During press conferences, in messaging to the public, and in news articles, representatives of the PHA as well as other experts who received space in media outlets often talked “about” older people, excluding them from the conversation. A cascade of ageist portrayals of older people as a burden to society has been prevalent during (and before) the pandemic in Sweden (Häggkvist and Rosvall 2020).

When addressing the high rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths among immigrant populations in Sweden, State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said that while the information about COVID-19 had been translated “all of the bigger languages… [the information] had not fully landed” (“Anders Tegnell – Plötsligt stod Sverige ensamt” 2020). Tegnell seemed to refuse to admit that following the PHA recommendations was for the privileged few. Leaving it to individual responsibility rather than acknowledging structural inequality revealed the callousness and blatant disregard for human life that has characterised the strategy.

A pandemic reworking of the myth of the ättestupa?

Whether or not herd immunity as a COVID-19 strategy was explicitly or implicitly pursued by the Swedish Public Health Authority, with wholehearted government support, is not the point. The point is that the vulnerable segments of the population have been wilfully sacrificed. There are eerie connections between the longstanding historical memory of the ättestupa and the kind of mentality surrounding the Swedish COVID-19 response. One journalist, responding to the argument that instigating large-scale measures to save older people in long-term care facilities wasn’t worth it since those people “would have died later in the year” anyways (Kjöller 2020), noted the similarity to ritual senicide in the horror film Midsommar. His description of an ice cold “rationality” around the ättestupa in the fictional account and its corollary in the current pandemic in Sweden, is striking (Teir 2020).

I hope that Sweden will face a reckoning of the ideologies underlying what is undoubtedly the “willed mass death of persons deemed old” (Cohen 2020, 544) as well as other structurally vulnerable groups. Looking to folklore might help to come to terms with the ideological roots of the Covid-19 response in Sweden and thereby reflect on the structural changes needed in Swedish society.



Carolina Johnson recently graduated from Oberlin College, Ohio, USA. This piece was derived from her thesis fieldwork in 2020/2021.


This post is the latest post in The Age of COVID-19 series, conceived and co-edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor, and Narelle Warren. Please send your contribution to Narelle.Warren@monash.edu

All contributions in this series will also be published by Somatosphere



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[1] Restrictions and recommendations did change and saw modifications over time, but the strategy remained largely intact.

[2] Later on, face masks would be recommended during “rush hours” in public transportation (Folkhälsomyndigheten 2020). 

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