Reading time: 4 min.
While citizens from all European countries are learning to live under lockdown, Sweden’s softer approach to the pandemic has been raising eyebrows across the continent.
Scrolling through my feed, in between the running posts, bread recipes, TikToks and virtual aperitifs, some Swedes I follow are still having drinks on terraces, ordering delicious food in restaurants and meeting friends in the park. Looking at their photos I cannot help but feel disconcerted by the lack of urgency in the midst of this pandemic. Are they being downright careless?
When Europe became the epicentre of the pandemic, European countries decided to take extraordinary actions. Denmark was amongst the first European countries to close its border, followed closely by Norway and Finland. In a couple of days, most countries had put into place an order of lockdown – but not Sweden. In a situation without precedent, instead of taking drastic actions, the government handed the reins down to experts, putting them in charge of handling the crisis. As a result, Sweden’s response to the crisis is very different from its Scandinavian neighbours.
No enforced lockdown but voluntary
The man in charge of handling the health crisis is Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist, whose response has been the subject of both criticism and appraisal from experts everywhere.
From the onset, Tegnell’s response to the crisis has been based on the assumption that shutting down the borders and imposing a full lockdown would be counterproductive. Instead, the official guideline for citizens has been to use common sense and voluntarily take precautions against the virus. Much softer guidelines have been put in place in order to protect the population. Large gatherings of over fifty people are prohibited. People over seventy years are asked to stay inside and avoid contact with others. Visits to retirement homes are not allowed. Bars and restaurants have to put in place measures to avoid overcrowding. For the rest, it is down to every individual to act responsibly.
As a result, many Swedes have taken upon themselves to participate in reducing the virus, although not being legally forced to do so. In some reports by tech companies, like Google, it is shown that movement in Sweden has been reduced since mid-March, that is when the crisis started. Similarly, the largest mobile operator in Sweden, Telia, reported that Stockholmers – from the most infected region, skipped traveling inland during eastern vacations in a decisive attempt to limit the spread.
In turn, the underlying goal of the Swedish approach is to avoid long-term economic hardships. Yet, the Foreign Minister, Ann Linde, pointed out that Sweden is not doing “business as usual”, facing economic difficulties similar to the rest of Europe. Still, Swedes “do not believe in lockdowns”. According to the state epidemiologist, the spread of the virus could not be contained with a two months lockdown. In addition, keeping people under lockdown for several month is seen as unsustainable and would result in collective fatigue. In sum, the Swedish response is to slow down the spread, without inflicting a burden too great to bear on the economy.
This sign says “take care of each others and our employees”
This store is having bankruptcy sale with a sign that says “keep distance”
Contained but not overridden
In return, Sweden’s soft response to the health crisis has been the subject of much scepticism. Sweden would become a ticking time bomb, and it would not be long before the country’s healthcare system would saturate, critics feared. Looking at numbers, new cases were growing much more rapidly in Sweden due to its lack of precautionary measures. It became evident that keeping businesses open was a dicey move, which reinforced the confidence of other countries in their decision of a lockdown. The worry was that Sweden would end up in the same situation as Italy or Spain. However, after two months in the crisis, it seems that Sweden’s response is sufficient to contain the spread of the virus and avoid saturation of the hospitals so far.
Nevertheless, within Sweden, some experts are rallying against Tegnell. By the end of March, 1,500 doctors had signed a petition urging the government to do more in stopping the spread of the virus. During this month, in an open letter published in a local newspaper, 22 scientists expressed strong criticism against the state epidemiologist for his decisions in handling the situation, comparing the number of Swedish fatalities to Italy. A comparison that some have refuted later on, shifting the comparison to Norway, Denmark, and Finland. In comparison to its Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden has had the worst results.
With 11 million inhabitants, compared to respectively 5 million in Denmark, Norway and Finland, Sweden’s mortality rate* is much greater than in its three neighbouring countries. Half of Sweden’s fatalities have occurred in nursing homes, despite the measures put in place. Furthermore, healthcare workers are struggling with shortages of personal protective equipments, just like in most European countries. Although Sweden is taking a different approach, it is experiencing many of the similar downsides, getting many to wonder if those fatalities could have been avoided if more had been done.
The Swedish model
Despite the opposition faced by Tegnell, other experts have also applauded the epidemiologist’s approach. If Sweden has been able to avoid a full enforced lockdown in the first place, it’s because its response was sufficient in containing the coronavirus. Additionally, Tegnell’s approach is in line with a Harvard study, which demonstrates that cutting transmission by 60 percent, with the use of lockdowns, increases the chance of another peak of the virus – also called a second wave. By slowing down the spread of the virus by 30 or 40 percent, the Swedes want to avoid having to impose several lockdowns. Something that would hurt both the economy and the moral of the population.
Furthermore, in the absence of a vaccine, it is hoped that letting the virus spread slowly can help the population build immunity to Covid-19, whilst avoiding crowding of hospitals – a strategy called “herd immunity”. Nevertheless, Anders Tegnell has been careful to avoid the term, following the failure of the strategy in the Netherlands and the UK.
Another distinctive characteristic about the Swedish handling of the crisis has been its reliance on expert’s knowledge rather than politicians. This has also permitted the scientists in charge to take an approach that might not be politically viable.
Some have also pointed to Swedish demography as an explanation to why it has avoided an explosion of Covid-19 cases. Indeed, being one of the least densely populated country in Europe, around 40 percent of Swedes live in single households. Furthermore, the political culture is different and characterised by a higher confidence in the government and the media. In return, the government trusts the citizens to act responsibly in slowing the spread of the virus.
Of course, it is too early to tell whether Sweden’s approach to the crisis will render the best results. It is not possible to tell whether more fatalities were avoidable before we reach the end of the crisis. Whether other countries could imitate that approach is difficult to say, because Sweden is different in many ways. It has a different political culture and different demography, which could be decisive in handling the situation.
As many European countries are slowly moving towards an end to their lockdown, Sweden can be an example that collective action – without being enforced – is possible. In the end, it is not that Swedes do not take the situation seriously, they are just handling it differently. Maybe Swedes can teach us about having is i magen (literally “ice in the stomach”), to keep our cool and be more self-responsible.
Kristin Heidebroek is a first-year master students in European studies, she studied political sciences in Oslo.
(* important to note that not all reported death have been tested for covid-19)