Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, it could be said that Sweden has been the biggest outlier in terms of its pandemic strategy. While many countries quickly introduced lockdowns at the outbreak, and others implemented already-developed test and trace systems, Sweden pushed to keep society open as much as possible.
Johan Carlson, head of its public health agency, justified this approach by saying that Sweden couldn’t take “draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society.” These words stunned members of the lockdown-loving press, as did the confidence of Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist, who refused to apologise for taking such a radical approach.
Hawkish Britons looked on with jealousy. As shoppers in this country were photographed frantically stockpiling Andrex, Sweden had more tranquil scenes of people going about their day. Bars and restaurants – as well as events of under 500 people were allowed to run. Seven months later, the debate still rages on about whether Britain “should have done a Sweden”.
There’s a libertarian romanticisation of it, and those with more interventionist instincts demonise it. It has become the axis on which people place arguments on whether to reopen, or close, the economy further.
The curious thing, though, is that the Swedish approach has actually changed a fair bit, making it not quite the radical experiment newspapers would have us all believe. It has, in fact, recently become closer to systems such as Germany’s, whereby local authorities get to decide what measures should apply to their area.
Indeed, next week Sweden will grant regional authorities the ability to introduce guidelines in their area to curb specific outbreaks of Covid-19. The National Board of Health and Welfare has set out what some of these could be, such as avoiding public transport; avoiding unnecessary travel; avoiding visiting people in a risk group, like elderly care homes, and avoiding physical contact with people who do not belong to your household. It remains to be seen how much councils will take up these instructions.
Furthermore, at a national level, Sweden has actually been quite cautious in many ways. Its health authorities encourage people to work from home if they can, avoid large social gatherings and keep a distance, as well as asking vulnerable people and over 70s to avoid shops, restaurants and public transport.
Maybe the crucial difference about Sweden is that it has been a more consensual model than others’. Instead of introducing Emergency Powers, it has relied on people’s sense of personal responsibility to achieve a balance between keeping the economy open, and saving lives.
Some of the more cautious move towards regional powers also reflects Tegnell’s fears about care homes – and his regret that they were not protected enough initially. It has been shown that a large number of the country’s 5,899 fatalities took place in such settings in spring, and he has since urged these places to “test staff very generously”.
In spite of Sweden’s evolving Covid strategy, the press still very much likes to sensationalise it. TIMES magazine recently called it a “disaster”, and focussed upon rising cases (never mind that daily deaths are relatively low and stable – as seen above).
But as with many other countries, the Swedish approach is changing. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson from it. Nothing is known about this virus, not least how a government might – in future – choose to deal with it.