Sweden the Unconquered, the Unbowed, the Unafraid: Who Thought These PC Enthusiasts Would Be the Last Ones Standing?
Hats off to Sweden, maybe we've been wrong about you all along
Sweden has become a global outlier in its approach to stopping the coronavirus.Rather than imposing a lockdown like most of Europe, the country has avoided “draconian” regulations, telling its people to follow social distancing, only order food at restaurants via table service, and work from home if they can.
At first, it may look like Sweden is taking the lax approach to curbing the virus that the UK hastily abandoned on Monday. But in a country famed for its world-leading public policy, local experts think the more lax approach could still have potential.
Here’s why Sweden is the largest country with the few limits during the outbreak, and why its government believes it will pay off.
WHAT SWEDEN HAS ASKED PEOPLE TO DO
Under guidance issued by Sweden’s Public Health Agency, Sweden will permit restaurants, bars and primary schools to remain open, with gatherings of 500 people or more still allowed to take place. Primary schools remain open, while secondary schools and universities have shut.
Everyone in Sweden is urged to stay at home if they are at all sick (even a mild cough or sore throat), avoid non-essential travel within the country, work from home if possible, and avoid non-essential visits to elderly people or hospitals.
The health agency, Folkhalsomyndigheten, believes this approach to social distancing will result in “a slow spread of infection, and that the health services have a reasonable workload”.
On Monday, Sweden’s former state epidemiologist and current advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Johan Giesecke went as far as to tell Swedes to go out and enjoy the spring sun.
Saying “banning public gatherings is an idiotic idea”, he told members of the public to “bring a friend and walk a metre apart”.
“Don’t hug your neighbour. Bring a thermos and sit on a park bench. It’s bad for your health to sit at home too,” Giesecke told broadcaster SVT’s morning show.
WHY THEY THINK IT WILL WORK
The approach may seem anxiety-inducing to Brits who have seen the death rate in the UK rise following government attempts to avoid lockdown.
But Sweden believes it could see a slow and steady increase in cases, without overwhelming its health system, relying on public faith in its health agency, and its citizens’ compliance.
Sweden’s Public Health Agency has a unique vantage point. Unlike in other countries, Sweden has an ingrained trust in the Folkhalsomyndigheten, as it is politically independent from the government. Ministers cannot interfere with its day to day running, with agency freedom enshrined in the Swedish constitution. “We’re seeing that tradition at work right now,” historian in Swedish policy Lars Trägård told Foreign Policy.
“Since the Public Health Agency is tasked with being the leading authority on the coronavirus crisis, the prime minister and his government are expected to listen to and follow their advice.” [This sounds like in Sweden the response is more de-politicized. This is what you get when decisions are made by people who aren’t facing re-election and feckless opposition ready to ramp up hysteria as a path to power, and who don’t have much to gain by ramping it up themselves. Either that or the Swedes are just a lot smarter than the rest of us.]
Early statistics work in the agency’s favour, with Sweden’s number of deaths substantially lower than in the UK.
A total of 2,272 people had been diagnosed with the coronavirus by 2pm on Tuesday in Sweden, with 36 deaths, averaging an age of 82, according to the public health agency’s latest update.
Comparatively, 8,077 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK, with 422 deaths recorded. By the time the UK reached 1,500 cases, 55 deaths had been recorded.
‘THIS IS BLOODY SERIOUS’
As the agency places its bets, other experts are outraged by the risky approach.
The Journal of the Swedish Medical Association has published a highly critical paper on the government’s approach, saying that it had missed the chance to halt the coronavirus.
Fredrik Elgh, a virology professor at Umeå University, is one of several professors who said he was “deeply concerned” by the government’s laissez-faire approach.
“I’d rather Stockholm was quarantined,” told state broadcaster SVT.
“We are almost the only country in the world not doing everything we can to curb the infection. This is bloody serious.”
IS IT WORKING?
What makes the approach even more controversial is that only time will tell if it is working.
The agency has also refused to make public risk assessments or prediction models for the spread of the virus, saying it “no longer has time to wait for the test results”.
Karin Tegmark Wisell, a microbiologist with the body, said: “We have to work faster and go one step beyond the tests. We recommend that all patients with symptoms limit their social contacts.”
Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, say the virus will be scheduled to calm down in May, but is likely to return in the autumn.
By then, experts will be able to find out whether coronavirus could be stopped either by “herd immunity, or a combination of immunity and vaccination,” Anders Tegnell told The Guardian. “It’s basically the same thing.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is urging Swedes to “take responsibility” and play their part in minimising the risk.
“There are a few crucial moments in life when you have to make sacrifices, not only for your own sake but also in order to take responsibility for the people around you, for your fellow human beings, and for our country,” he said in a televised speech on Sunday.
“That moment is now. That day is here. And that duty belongs to everyone.”