When the dreaded coronavirus made its way into Sweden, instead of enacting lockdowns and other mandatory measures, Swedes decided to take a more hands-off approach. Swedes did take the COVID-19 virus threat seriously, but decided on policies based more on trust rather than on compulsion. Though not without controversy, a few days ago, Sweden’s top health official claimed success for his country’s methods. A Swedish columnist with The Spectator out of Great Britain explains what his country did.
The Swedish experiment looks like it’s paying off
Fredrik Erixon – The Spectator
Two weeks ago, I wrote about ‘the Swedish experiment’ in The Spectator. As the world went into lockdown, Sweden opted for a different approach to tackling coronavirus: cities, schools and restaurants have remained open. This was judged by critics to be utterly foolish: it would allow the virus to spread much faster than elsewhere, we were told, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. Hospitals would become like warzones. As Sweden was two weeks behind the UK on the epidemic curve, most British experts said we’d pay the price for our approach when we were at the peak. Come back in two weeks, I was told. Let’s see what you’re saying then. So here I am.
I’m happy to say that those fears haven’t materialised. But the pressure on Sweden to change tack hasn’t gone away. We haven’t u-turned. We’re careful, staying inside a lot more. But schools and shops remain open. Unlike some countries on the continent, no one is asking for ‘our papers’ when we move around in cities. The police don’t stop us and ask why we are spending so much time outdoors: authorities rather encourage it. No one is prying in shopping baskets to make sure you only buy essentials.
The country’s Public Health Agency and the ‘state epidemiologist’, Anders Tegnell, have kept their cool and still don’t recommend a lockdown. They are getting criticised by scientific modellers but the agency is sticking to its own model of how the virus is expected to develop and what pressure hospitals will be under. The government still heeds the agency’s advice; no party in the opposition argues for a lockdown. Rather, opinion polls show that Swedes remain strongly in favour of the country’s liberal approach to the pandemic.
So why isn’t Sweden changing tack in the fight against the pandemic? ‘The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance’, wrote Albert Camus in The Plague – a book that eerily depicts the suffering of the human condition when a disease sweeps through society. And lately, scientists and observers have ventured that explanation publicly: perhaps Sweden’s refusal to fall into line is because Tegnell and his team are a bunch of philistines?
A group of 22 scientists made that charge in an op-ed last week in Dagens Nyheter, appealing to the government to rein in supposedly ignorant officials at the Public Health Agency. Last week, a piece in the Daily Telegraph ran with the same theme and expanded it to include much of the national population: Swedes have willingly been duped by ignorant authorities and a chief epidemiologist who has been seduced by his own sudden fame. Our faith in government is so big, and our bandwidth for dissent is so small, that we even scold criticism of the government as ‘shameful betrayal of the national effort’. A journalist from French television that I talked to on Sunday admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that ‘it’s almost as if we want Sweden to fail because then we would know it is you and not us that there is something wrong with’.
PHOTO CREDIT: Creative commons license – Streetsigns outside Sahlgrenska hospital from late February telling those with potential symptoms of COVID-19 to wait outside the hospital.