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Sweden: Europe’s outlier in times of Covid-19

Sweden has been Europe’s Covid-19 outlier by trying to find a balance between the economy and public health. The country has opted for a very mild lockdown based on citizens’ voluntary consent – a policy that still has widespread support among the population. Outside Sweden, however, the country’s laissez-faire attitude is still frowned upon and few countries appear to consider changing to the Swedish approach.

From the start of the corona pandemic, there has been much confusion about the strategy chosen by Sweden in response to Covid-19. Praised by some for not opting for a strict lockdown, others have accused Sweden of acting irresponsibly. Thus, almost as a form of punishment for choosing a different path, travel restrictions have been imposed on Sweden by other countries due to its coronavirus infection rate.

Scandinavian countries are traditionally seen as similar in many respects, but experts at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have pointed at the particularly strong role of independent bodies in Sweden – also in times of a pandemic. While elected officials are said to listen to them in Sweden, the hierarchy is different in Denmark and Norway, where politicians have a stronger role and do not always take decisions that are evidence-based.

Some media publications have taken their disagreement with the Swedish strategy to an extreme by suggesting that Sweden recorded its highest death toll in 150 years in the first half of 2020, in a count not seen since a 1869 famine. Johan Hellström has corrected this, however, showing that the size of the extra deathly victims per million inhabitants due to Covid-19 has not been excessive in historical perspective.

Other publications have suggested, along similar lines, that “Sweden has become something of a cautionary tale for what happens when you attempt to tackle coronavirus without lockdowns”. Worldometer data would allegedly indicate that Sweden is one of the worst nations in the world in terms of deaths per million population. A recent WHO report, however, concluded that the number of new infections in Sweden has dropped by 54% since late June, while countries like Spain, France and Germany have seen increases between 40% and 200%. This has strengthened Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist, in his opinion that the voluntary measures that were put in place in Sweden have been just as effective as complete lockdowns in other countries.

Similar debates can be found in academic journals. Johan Giesecke, an expert at the Karolinska Institute, has concluded in the Lancet that everyone will be exposed to the virus and that most people will become infected. As there is little to prevent this spread, he expects that the future will show that the figures will be similar in all countries regardless of the measures taken. Therefore, “our most important task is not to stop spread, which is all but futile, but to concentrate on giving the unfortunate victims optimal care”. Other scientists strongly disagree with Giesecke’s statements, claiming that Sweden has recorded much more victims than other Scandinavian countries and pointing at the “considerable successes” of Covid-19 containment in countries such as New Zealand and Taiwan. Yet others have observed that Sweden’s objective of herd immunity is still nowhere in sight, in contrast to claims by Giesecke that this may already be up to 50% in some regions.

At this stage, with media reports and academic publications disagreeing on many points, it is unclear how to assess the situation in Sweden. The country has bravely chosen its own path and part of the criticism by other countries and media can possibly be explained as an attempt to discredit Sweden. Perhaps it will be become clear later this year, when the corona season starts again, whether Sweden records such low infections that it can be said to have built the much-desired herd immunity.

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