Ambassador Per EKLUND: "COVID is unpredictable. I had a lucky escape"

12.05.2020 (Caucasian Journal).The Swedish response to COVID-19 is in the focus of the world's attention today. But how does it feel to recover from coronavirus in a Swedish hospital? And when the patient happens to be a former ambassador to Georgia, Caucasus Journal is especially keen about his comments.
Today we are honoured to introduce a very special guest – Ambassador Per EKLUND, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, former EU Ambassador to Georgia – a person widely known and deeply respected in the South Caucasus. 

He planned to spend this May in Georgia and to meet with us in person, but as COVID interrupted, instead of Tbilisi he had to go to a Stockholm's hospital. Now, after the worst is over, Ambassador Eklund has got a very unique mix of experiences, which he is sharing with our readers.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Welcome to Caucasian Journal, Mr. Ambassador, and thank you for finding time for this interview. I am very glad to see you in good health after catching the notorious coronavirus infection. Allow me a somewhat personal question first. Earlier this year you celebrated your 75th birthday. Do you agree that senior citizens should follow stricter isolation rules? Should they be extra careful themselves, or is it a task for the authorities to establish different conditions for people over 60?

Per EKLUND: Well, persons who are 70+ should be careful, as we are, generally speaking, part of the risk group. And I was careful and yet got infected. And although I was in good shape, with no other diseases, no diabetes, no overweight and a non-smoker, I got severely ill. This was my second time in a hospital bed, the first was 1945, at my birth!

AK: Oh, really? And how does it feel to get through a COVID-19, especially in a severe case? Do you have a guess how you got infected?

PE: COVID-19 has so many faces. Many get it without knowing they are infected. My wife and I got ill the same day. We were probably infected the same time, in a bus or a shop – we have no clue. No one in our circle of family and friends have been infected.

She got a mild variant with fever and flu symptoms and after less than a week she was fine again. But when her fever started to go down, mine rocketed to 39-40 and I had to be admitted to hospital where I was diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia. I was never in a ventilator, but, as my oxygen uptake was low, I needed extra oxygen day and night through my nose. I am glad that I did not need a ventilator.

AK: Let’s wrap up the illness theme with a related question: What does a Swedish hospital in the time of COVID look like – have you noticed any specifics worth sharing with readers? Are you satisfied with the way your healthcare system treated you? Are there any experiences, which might be useful for healthcare practice in other countries?

PE: My experience is too limited to be able to offer any advice. In my experience however the reception in the emergency ward was badly organized, but once in the infection unit it was excellent with dedicated, competent staff, full of empathy. But the illness is unpredictable, with no specific cure – it could have gone either way. I had a lucky escape.

AK: Sweden has demonstrated a very unique approach to coronavirus pandemic. While many experts consider it successful, it seems still quite controversial. Earlier in May, even the Sweden’s state epidemiologist Dr. Anders Tegnell admitted that “the death toll really came as a surprise to us” (source). What’s your overall view on Sweden's response - both as a professional, and as a former patient?

PE: I think our “soft lockdown” is working well, people are following the rules about social distancing and at the same time, our society is largely up and running. Even if businesses are suffering, it is less that in countries in a total lock down.

Admittedly, our death toll is presently higher than that of our Nordic neighbors, but much lower than that of Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and USA, but when looking at figures we need to have a much longer perspective. Only in retrospect and when the recovery process of the economy has started, can we assess which approach was the best. Some claim that it is not over till at least 60% of the populations have been struck by the virus, just not all at the same time. For how long will the population accept a total lockdown, how long that the economy and functioning of society sustain it?

AK: If I understand correctly, in the core of Sweden’s attitude lies a high level of personal responsibility and self-discipline. In other words, when other countries can ensure social distancing only by police measures, in Sweden citizens behave responsibly without such enforcement. Is indeed the Swedish society so different from other nations, including even your culturally close Scandinavian neighbours? If yes, why is it so?

PE: The Nordic countries are culturally close. Our societies function is similar ways; we share a lot of history, values and traditions. But in this case, our politicians have just chosen different paths. Now as we see that our neighbors are softening the rules, will they perhaps see a new wave of cases? Time will tell. I think the debate of which route was the best, will continue long after this is over.

AK: Does it mean that the Swedish methods would not work in other countries? What aspects of Swedish experience still may be useful for other nations (for Georgia in particular)?

PE: I think it can work in other countries as well. This is a vicious virus, no one wants to have it, as it can kill you and we must trust adults to make correct choices. But still, you cannot fully protect yourself against this very infectious virus – I am a living proof of that.

AK: As a senior EU officer, you have a wide international experience. What’s your professional viewpoint on the world’s reaction to COVID - primarily, the role of WHO, EU, and national governments other than Swedish? Do you consider the world’s reaction adequate?

 We saw signs of protectionism within the EU, which was discouraging. Luckily, this phase is behind us now.

PE: On the whole I think it is adequate, a lot of international cooperation and coordination is needed concerning vaccines, treatments etc, and this is offering important roles for WHO and the EU. It is however regrettable that the US is not assuming a world leader role in this area. In the beginning of the outbreak we saw signs of protectionism within the EU, which was discouraging. Luckily, this phase is behind us now.

AK: I wanted to ask your opinion about the political situation in Georgia, as you not only have spent many years in this country as head of EU Delegation, but afterwards have monitored Georgia’s elections as an official observer. Back in 2010 you coined out the famous phrase comparing Georgia to tango dance — “two steps forward, one step backward, two steps forward, one step backward”. In 2019 we have heard many critical voices from Georgian civil society, as well as from EU and American friends, regarding backsliding of democracy and insufficient quality of elections in a country, which once was considered the leader of democratic reforms among post-Soviet states. Are we still dancing the same dance?

PE: To build a democracy is a learning process and it takes time. Democracy is also fragile, see the developments in Hungary and Poland. Democratic principles always need to be defended. When the agreement between the majority and opposition on the electoral reforms was reached, it was a step in the right direction and many of us hoped that this was a sign political maturity in the country. But then the “tangoing” started… and naturally, friends and allies of Georgia were disappointed and politicians were rightly criticized. But I am an optimist and I know that there are so many talented Georgians around, so perhaps there will be a way out of the impasse. Georgia has come out of a mess before…

AK: In a 2010’s interview you have observed that Georgia needs “to build the institutions; to raise competence of people; to delegate powers to people; to change the mindset of people”. Ten years have passed. Do you think this decade was wasted in terms of this making the needed changes happen, or you see any substantial progress?

 If I was a politician in Georgia I would be worried about the electorate´s lack of trust in the political class…

PE: Again, these things take time. But if I was a politician in Georgia I would be worried about the electorate´s lack of trust in the political class…

AK: I did not intend to devote the whole of the interview to COVID subjects, but no matter how I want to avoid it, the virus proliferates everywhere. How do you foresee the influence of quarantine - and its economic implications - on the upcoming elections in Georgia?

PE: What we experience now will undoubtedly have an effect on our societies and economy with spill over effects on the elections. Exactly how is hard to predict but we might reassess our values, assess what is important and what is not, address climate threats, give priority to health care issues and social security questions. And perhaps we will be less forgiving concerning political quarrels and pettiness.

AK: Going up to the international level, how do you see the implications of the unprecedented pandemic for democracy around the world? Laura Thornton has devoted her whole interview to this subject (I am sure you know Laura well from your time in Georgia, and apparently will meet her again as she starts working in Stockholm).

 Perhaps we will be less forgiving concerning political quarrels and pettiness.

PE: My short answer is yes, the pandemic will have an effect on democracy, we might see populists trying to take advantage of what has happened but hopefully the democratic forces will win. I am looking forward to welcoming Laura to Stockholm and to continue my discussions with her.

AK: My last question is what, in your view, the post-COVID world will look like? I hope for some positive outcome, like, for instance, some international “talkshops” need to switch to remote formats, cutting travel costs and CO emissions…

PE: I agree with you, I also believe in some positive outcomes. There will be changes to how we will interact with one another, how we travel, there will more work from home, more distance education, what we prioritize in life etc. In Sweden, for example, we can see that the issue of migration has gone down as an issue of interest, while issues like care of the elderly, health and education has gone up.

AK: Thank you for excellent answers! We wish you and your family the best of health and hope to see in Georgia before long.

PE: Thank you!

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