Scandinavia hosts four of the most developed countries on the face of the Earth. Their strategies to combat the coronavirus varied somewhat, but the large outlier was Sweden. In Sweden, bars and schools were open, people still had their coffee outside, and lockdown was essentially optional.
Now, as other Scandinavian countries are finally seeing their coronavirus numbers decrease, Sweden is reporting more fatalities than ever, and criticism is mounting.
The Nordic comparison
There have been over 1,000 coronavirus fatalities in Sweden, a country of about 10 million inhabitants. That's far less than what other European countries are experiencing, but there is little reason for comfort. Compared to neighboring Norway, Denmark, or Finland, Sweden is doing much worse.
Sweden left schools, bars, cafes and restaurants open to the public. Stockholm's busy avenues remained bustling with people, and while some shops closed down, life continued without a general lockdown. Sweden recommended -- but did not enforce -- social distancing.
Swedish authorities argued that a mandatory lockdown is not sustainable, and the best course of action is to recommend voluntary social distancing -- a similar approach to what the UK initially opted for, before U-turning into full lockdown.
So far, the number of cases in Sweden outnumber those in neighboring Scandinavian countries.
But as it is almost always the case, the number of new cases doesn't really tell the full story, as most people (even those displaying symptoms) don't get tested. When we look at the number of new fatalities per day, the discrepancy becomes much larger.
This latest development prompted 22 academics to write an opinion piece in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, urging officials to take more severe measures.
"Close schools and restaurants in the same way that Finland has. All people working with elderly must wear adequate protective equipment. Start mass testing of all personnel that treat patients and test for antibodies so that those who have immunity can go back to work."
“The approach must be changed radically and quickly,” the group wrote. “As the virus spreads, it is necessary to increase social distance. Close schools and restaurants. Everyone who works with the elderly must wear adequate protective equipment. Quarantine the whole family if one member is ill or tests positive. Elected representatives must intervene, there is no other choice.”
Swedish authorities have conceded that stricter measures might be enforced soon but did not announce anything concrete. Meanwhile, civil society continues to protest Sweden's approach.
A letter signed by 900 teachers and school staff in the Aftonbladet urged authorities to close down the schools, citing that enforcing social distancing in schools is simply impossible, adding that with schools being open, “we are not able to protect children and educators in at-risk groups”.
A growing number of parents are also complaining about the country's measures. Anxious parents who have not sent kids to school due to coronavirus concerns have been threatened with referral to social services, while concerned families and school staff have written open letters describing the government’s policy as “unacceptable” and arguing that it is “risking the lives of children, relatives and staff”.
Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist, dismissed these concerns and argued that Scandinavian countries are simply on different parts of the epidemic curve. He said that there are "basic errors" in these criticisms, adding that he does not want to comment further.
Sweden's profile and strategy
Sweden's demography seemed perfect for halting COVID-19 in its tracks. Over 50% of households are single-person, the country has a low population density, the health system is excellent, people are highly educated, and many can work from home. Tegnell did not say whether this influenced the decision to not enforce a lockdown, but if there is a place where you'd expect voluntary quarantine to work, it's in Scandinavia.
It's hard to say what the long-term impact of this strategy will be, but so far, it doesn't seem to be paying dividends.
Meanwhile, the economy seems to be suffering similarly to countries that have imposed lockdowns, with finance minister Magdalena Andersson estimating that GDP could shrink by 10% this year and unemployment could rise to 13.5%.
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven referring to "common sense" and Tegnell said that the strategy is rooted in a "long tradition" of respecting "free will", as well as a high level of trust and respect for public authorities -- but these are all common traits for neighboring Scandinavian countries, which have opted for imposing lockdown and are seeing a far gentler coronavirus curve.
Nevertheless, Tegnell repeatedly stresses that while Sweden might have more infections in the short term, Sweden has the better strategy in the long run. That may still be the case, but at least for the time being, Sweden's approach still has a lot left to prove.