By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
For most of the last few months, the only place in Europe where you could go to the gym, the cinema or a bar was in Sweden. Swedes did not have to run the gauntlet of lockdown haircuts at home — no doubt they have the best-groomed locks on the continent. They did not have to resort to watching online fitness gurus, baking banana bread or only seeing friends and family on video calls. This all fits neatly with the image of Sweden: The happy, secure and egalitarian Scandinavian powerhouse of Ikea, Tetra Pak and Volvo.
Think of risk-taking countries and you do not think of Sweden. This is a country where it is the law to have your headlights on throughout every journey. A Swede invented the three-point safety belt for cars. Yet it is Sweden that has, almost alone, opted not to engage in any form of lockdown to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). It is a gamble. The government of Stefan Lofven has merely issued guidelines on social distancing and outlawed gatherings of more than 50 people. Swedes are advised to work from home and keep at arm’s length from others in restaurants and cafes. Elementary and middle schools never closed — only for the over-16s, but even these will be opening again from mid-June.
Swedish officials are at pains to stress that the aim is not herd immunity; although, if levels of immunity are higher, it will help. Epidemiologists reckon that herd immunity arises when about 60 percent of a given population has been affected and acquired immunity. It appears that the British government toyed with this approach in March before revised data and modeling forced a rethink. Consequently, many think Britain was too late into the lockdown and see this as one reason why it has suffered more virus-related fatalities than anywhere in Europe and lies second only to the US in the global ranking.
The official Swedish view is that COVID-19 cannot be defeated without an effective vaccine, so it is a disease that society will have to learn to live with. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, argues: “You can’t keep a lockdown going for months — it’s impossible.”
Other countries go under lockdown but, as the restrictions are eased, risk a second wave. The rest of Europe will discover if that is true in the next two months, as most states are opening up and easing the tougher measures. Arguably, if these countries can do this while keeping the infection rate low and avoiding future waves, Sweden’s approach will look reckless. Was this more of an experiment than elsewhere? Did it constitute a risk too far?
But has it worked? The current picture is not favorable, with 4,395 deaths and more than 37,000 cases as of Monday in a country with a population of about 10 million. And lower testing rates than its neighbors means more people may have been infected than so far reported. At the start, Sweden’s Public Health Agency enjoyed massive support. Tegnell was a celebrity figure, his image on mugs and T-shirts. While most people still back the authorities, ever more are fearful. Although Swedes typically exhibit a high level of trust in their government and authorities, more are questioning the path taken. One potent argument is that an early lockdown would have allowed time to prepare and protect those most at risk.
It is not as if Sweden was not capable of sustaining a lockdown. A rule-abiding society like Sweden’s perhaps could have handled a strict lockdown better than others. Swedes are accustomed to long, dark and very cold winters. Stuck indoors during those months, they typically spend the rest of the year outside — almost hibernating in winter and out in the open air in summer.
How has Sweden fared in comparison to its Nordic neighbors? After all, they share similar cultures, climate and demographics. Norway and Finland last week had mortality rates of 4.42 and 5.58 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively, whereas Sweden’s was 39.57, which was even above the US’ figure of 30.02. It is hard to argue that Sweden has got it right when its death rate is almost 10 times higher than Norway’s. In part, Sweden’s figures are a result of a failure to protect the elderly in care homes; something the UK has also suffered from. Denmark and Norway have announced dates for the reopening of their borders, but not for travel to and from Sweden. Estonia, Latvia and Greece are doing likewise.
Take Greece — a country typically looked down on by the richer northern EU states. Despite its lack of resources, a tough crackdown has led to one of the lowest infection rates in Europe with only 175 deaths. It puts Sweden’s record to shame.
In fairness, the Swedish argument depends on how the situation looks in a year’s time, not today. Perhaps Swedes will have a degree of immunity that others do not, even though it is still not certain that infection leads to immunity.
By maintaining near-normal life with only minor inconveniences, Swedes may not have to face the same levels of emotional stress and mental health issues as other populations that are isolated at home. And the Swedish economy may not be as constricted as those of other countries. Figures indicate that it grew in the first quarter of this year by 0.1 percent — something other countries have struggled to match. But the Swedish economy could still shrink by more than 7 percent this year. Its economy is not isolated from the global economic slowdown and the pandemic has bitten hard.
“Be like Sweden” has become a slogan of anti-lockdown activists in the US and elsewhere. Sweden ranks high in the deaths per million of population, but several other European states that did lockdown, such as Belgium and Italy, have higher rates. Who knows, Swedish leaders and scientists may yet come out shining. Knowledge of the virus is still evolving, but it is tough to ignore the evidence piling up for suppression over mitigation, for restrictions over laissez-faire. The world will be watching Sweden closely.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech