Stuck Between Sweden and Germany

Lorenz Wirth


All non-essential work at the Center for Infectious Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has ground to a halt. I know this only because my supervisor told me over a video conference call. Otherwise, I would be oblivious to what is going in the lab where I should have started working as a Ph.D. student by now. Instead, I’m stuck back home in Berlin, unable to start my new position as an immunological researcher. All arrangements to move to Sweden have been postponed and will be resumed in late summer… at least, that is what I’m hoping for.

The next four years should have been dedicated to my research on innate lymphoid cells, which represent a comparatively young area of immunology. I’m super excited about the prospect of being part of and growing together with this field, but now it is frustrating for me to be held back. What’s more, not knowing how things will develop even in the near future brings a certain level of uncertainness to everything. Can I move to Stockholm soon? When will I be able to start with my first experiments? This is certainly not the ideal starting point for any Ph.D. project!

At least, I’m now pretty well connected with my new group. Regular meetings and daily Zoom-sessions for morning coffee make me feel like I’m a part of them. This is something, I’m really thankful for. While I’m now kind of stuck in between two locations, all I can do is look at the different paths that Germany and Sweden are taking to tackle the situation.

In Germany, we have less stringent measures than other European countries like France, Spain or Italy. Some of the restrictions have now been cautiously lifted as the numbers of new infections have steadily decreased over the last weeks. Being able to visit a barber shop again was certainly one of the personal highlights for me (and definitely necessary!). Contact restrictions, however, are also still in place, meaning I can’t visit many of my friends. Of course, even Ph.D. students need a bit of leisure time here and there. Stuck in Berlin, I’m trying to keep me updated on the situation over in Sweden.

The country has taken a different approach. In German newspapers they termed it the “Swedish experiment”. There is no lock-down, bars and restaurants continue to serve and gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed. Instead of strict rules, the Public Health authorities give recommendations. This may look ‘laissez-faire’ compared to other countries, but Sweden seems to have a different culture and mentality. My supervisor in Stockholm told me that Swedish people view recommendations from authorities as a suggestion, something you should do but shouldn’t be forced to do. Accordingly, life does not go on as usual. Many Swedes stay home and are cautious, but on a voluntary basis, all following a key strategy that is sustainable over time.

As Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said, the outcome of our different strategies can only be fully evaluated in a couple of years. And he’s probably right. Until then, I hope that we have not only gotten a better understanding of the virus itself, but also of the right countermeasures that are effective but, at the same time, have the least invasive impact on us as a society. Until then, I hope I’ve well advanced or even finished my Ph.D. project. Although I’m having a rough start, I feel that times like these are motivating for us immunologists. Certainly, I’m now more eager than ever to move to Stockholm and finally start my experiments. I just hope it will be soon!

Lorenz Wirth is a German PhD based in Sweden