US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Is Sweden’s decision to abandon the nationwide quarantine really a different way of combating Covid-19, keeping it open? Sweden’s unorthodox methods for countering the coronavirus epidemic are popular domestically and are sometimes praised abroad. But at the same time, they contributed to the fact that the mortality rate from Covid-19 in Sweden today is one of the highest in the world, even higher than in the United States.
Stockholm’s bars and restaurants are full of people enjoying the spring sun after a long and dark winter. Schools and fitness clubs are open. The Swedish authorities make certain medical recommendations, but impose few sanctions for their violation. No one officially recommends people wear masks.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the government and most commentators proudly supported this “Swedish model”, stating that it relies on the uniquely high level of “Swedes” trust in government institutions and each other. Prime Minister Stefan Leuven emphasized that he was appealing to the self-discipline of the Swedes, expecting them to act responsibly, not needing orders from the authorities.
According to the World Values Survey, Swedes are truly inclined to demonstrate a unique combination of trust in government institutions with extreme individualism. As the sociologist Lars Tragardh put it, every Swede carries on his shoulders his own policeman.
But let’s not confuse cause with effect. The government did not develop the Swedish pandemic model, consciously believing in a deep sense of civic responsibility among the population. Rather, the actions of the government were determined by bureaucrats, and then, after the fact, they began to defend them, calling them proof of positive Swedish qualities.
In practice, the main task to combat this outbreak fell on the shoulders of one person – the state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the National Institute of Health. Tegnell approached this crisis with his own set of ideas about the virus. At first, he believed that he would not spread from China, and then that it would be enough to track individual cases brought to the country from abroad. And therefore, thousands of Swedish families who have been returning from ski resorts in the Italian Alps since the end of February were actively encouraged to return to work and schools if they were not clearly ill, even if their family members were infected. Tegnell argued that there were no signs of a domestic virus infection, and therefore there was no need to reinforce and expand containment measures.
Between the lines, Tegnell hinted that the rejection of draconian measures designed to stop the spread of the virus would allow the Swedes to gradually develop collective immunity. Such a strategy, he emphasized, is more acceptable to society.
All this time, the Swedish government took a passive position. This is partly due to the unique feature of the country’s political system, namely the strict separation of powers between central government ministries and independent agencies. And Leuven was very comfortable letting the Tegnell department set the tone in the “fog of war”. For several weeks of uncertainty, his apparent confidence in his actions gave the government the opportunity to relieve himself of responsibility. In addition, Leuven probably wanted to demonstrate confidence in “science and facts”, without disputing, like US President Donald Trump, the opinion of experts.
But it should be noted that the decisions chosen by the state epidemiologist were sharply criticized by independent experts from Sweden. Twenty-two of Sweden’s most prominent specialists in infectious diseases and epidemiology published an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper urging Tegnell to resign and the government to change course.
By mid-March, when the infection had already spread widely within the country, Leuven was forced to begin to play a more active role. Since then, the government has been catching up. Since March 29, it has banned meetings of people of more than 50 people (previously there was a limit of 500 people) and imposed sanctions for violation of this rule. And from April 1, it banned visits to nursing homes when it became apparent that the virus had penetrated about half of these homes in Stockholm.
Sweden’s approach turned out to be erroneous for at least three reasons. Whatever positive advantages the Swedes possess, there will always be rule-breakers in any society, and when it comes to an extremely contagious disease, you don’t need many such violators to do huge harm. Secondly, the Swedish authorities only eventually realized that infection can occur without symptoms, and those infected are most infectious before they develop any symptoms. And thirdly, the composition of the Swedish population has changed.
After many years of incredibly high levels of immigration from Africa and the Middle East, 25% of the Swedish population (2.6 million out of 10.2 million inhabitants of the country) today are not of Swedish origin. In the Stockholm region, this proportion is even higher. Immigrants from Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are disproportionately represented among those who died from Covid-19. This is explained, in particular, by the lack of information in the language of immigrants. But, it seems, there is a more important factor: a high density of residence in the suburbs with a large share of immigrants, which leads to closer physical proximity between generations.
It is too early to speak of a full understanding of the implications of the “Swedish model”. But today, the death rate from Covid-19 in the country is nine times higher than in Finland, almost five times higher than in Norway, and more than twice as high as in Denmark.
To some extent, these figures can be explained by a larger share of immigrants in the population of Sweden, however, such a sharp difference from the situation in neighboring Scandinavian countries is striking. Denmark, Norway and Finland already introduced strict quarantine measures in the early stages, and their politicians actively demonstrated strong leadership qualities.
Today, when the Covid-19 is rampaging rampant in nursing homes and other social groups, the Swedish government should back up. And other countries that may be tempted by the “Swedish model” should understand that its main feature is a higher mortality rate.
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