Wednesday. 4/11/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Ulrika Björkstén

Letter from… Stockholm

When asked what best describes Swedish culture, “lagom” is probably the single most frequent word mentioned by Swedes. There is no perfect equivalent in English but it could be translated as “just enough” or “judiciously”. We Swedes pride ourselves on navigating life judiciously, weighing the pros and cons, adding just enough of this and avoiding just enough of that, never exaggerating. Ironically, during the coronavirus pandemic, this approach has earned us a reputation as extremists.

When Europe was hit by the pandemic in March, Sweden didn’t close its schools nor its restaurants. And it took longer than most other countries to limit the number of people allowed to congregate in public. Instead, the Swedish Public Health Agency reiterated the importance of maintaining hand hygiene and a distance of 1.5 metres, while self-isolating at the slightest of symptoms. By repeating this message in combination with daily reports on the growing number of cases, hospitalisations and fatalities, the Public Health Agency counted on a well-informed public to make judicious decisions in their everyday life while conserving personal freedom.

Some would say that the strategy failed miserably, as death rates soared in April, at one point bringing Sweden to a most unflattering top position in Europe for the number of coronavirus fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants. Others would say that the approach has been a success, slowly but steadily bringing down the number of infections to a low that lasted several months over summer, and which is only recently rising again – much later than in many other European countries.

Time will tell as to what havoc the virus itself has wreaked in different parts of the world and what the long-lasting effects of different measures taken to mitigate it will have had on public health, psychological wellbeing, trust and fear. For the first time in my adult life, I haven’t left Sweden for more than a year, so I’m not in a position to compare the subtleties of atmosphere. But those arriving here from elsewhere have given me some indication: Sweden strikes them as a much calmer and more trusting place than any other European country they have just visited.

Björkstén is head of science at Swedish Public Radio.

Terrorism / Austria

Shock attack

Following the terror attack in Austria’s capital on Monday night, one line was repeated over and over: this does not happen in Vienna. Indeed, for many residents the terror attack would have been their first in living memory. Details of what happened are still emerging. We know the attack began around 20.00 near the central synagogue and then spread to neighbouring streets, in an area known for its nightlife. We know that five people were killed and at least 22 others injured, some of them while sheltering at cafés where they had been enjoying a last night out before another coronavirus lockdown. Police now say there was in all likelihood just one assailant, who was shot dead by police and later identified as a 20-year-old convicted jihadist with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. On Monday night the word used most frequently by officials and TV presenters was unübersichtlich – confusing. There’s less confusion now but many questions still remain about how this happened there and what could have been done to prevent the violence.

Urbanism / Malaysia

One track mind

The Twelfth Malaysia Plan, a strategic document set to outline the country’s development agenda through to 2025, will be finalised later this month. Construction of high-speed rail links and new schools are likely to feature, while the current chairman of the nation’s Alliance for Safe Community, Lee Lam Thye, is pushing the government to also expand its programme of dedicated motorcycle lanes.

Thye says that the left-hand lanes of roads could be instantly dedicated to two wheelers, with formal infrastructure to follow. Speaking to Malaysian media, the former MP explained that this would stop motorcycles “competing for space with the bigger vehicles, which is the main cause for [their] horrifically high death tolls”. Although the initiative would help to curb fatal crashes, Malaysia would be wise to confine it to larger roads and motorways. Introducing dedicated lanes on neighbourhood streets could encourage speeding and make the areas dangerous for pedestrians. Keeping every road user safe should be the priority, and in this instance there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Politics / Colombia

Breaking point

This month marks four years since a peace deal was signed between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). But instead of being celebrated, the peace treaty looks to be increasingly in peril. Last weekend an estimated 2,000 former Farc guerrillas, now members of a political party, protested in the streets of Bogotá over the alleged murder of 236 former combatants since the peace deal was signed. Other Farc rebels have turned their backs on the process altogether and taken up arms. Senator Victoria Sandino, a former Farc rebel-turned-lawmaker who helped to lead the protests, said in an interview for Monocle’s November issue that a renewal of political will is required for peaceful change to last. She blamed the government of Colombian president Iván Duque Márquez, who hails from the right-wing Democratic Center Party, which campaigned against the peace deal. “The implementation of the peace accords is definitely fragile,” says Sandino. “This government, on top of not having the political will to implement the peace accord, also aims to undermine it.”

Art / UK

Moving pictures

One east London-based conceptual artist is taking a stand against exhibitions increasingly moving online. “If you can’t visit art, art should visit you,” is the ethos of the latest project by Mike Abrahams. He’s offering to arrange private views – as in one-to-one presentations – in people’s homes, gardens or parks, as far as the UK’s distancing restrictions permit. “Online shows are fine if you’re Hockney and everyone knows what to expect but they’re useless for unknown artists because they don’t give a sense of colour, scale or curation,” says Abrahams. “Putting pieces alongside each other creates a conversation in a physical exhibition space.” Much of his work, such as the sculpture “Cecilia” (pictured), which is made from found objects, revolves around the notion of chance. Abrahams is inviting people to choose six numbers in advance that will then dictate which six of the 59 works in his exhibition he will bring to the viewing. A design-studio owner whose business is now sufficiently successful to allow him to focus on his art, Abrahams is not interested in selling works but instead on “putting things out there” and “finding the magic that connects us as human beings”.

M24 / Monocle On Culture

Autumn 2020 preview

To recommend the best music, television programmes and books still to come this year, Robert Bound is joined by Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher at Dialogue Books; Ammar Kalia, The Guardian’s assistant TV editor; and the writer and editor Liv Siddall.

Monocle Films / St Moritz

The Chiefs conference 2020

The first edition of The Chiefs, Monocle’s high-altitude summit, took place at Suvretta House in the Swiss Alps over a few sunny days in September. After months of being cooped up at home, guests and panellists alike gathered to be together and exchange ideas. We covered everything from assessing risk in these uncertain times and future-proofing our cities to how to turn things around in hospitality or how to design a safe and friendly workspace.

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