Is softly, softly Sweden heading for catastrophe?

Is softly, softly Sweden heading for catastrophe? Alone in Europe, its schools, bars and restaurants are open as usual… in a maverick response to coronavirus. But now deaths are set to soar – and ministers are facing fury, writes PAUL CONNOLLY

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Swedes really don’t like to stand out. They much prefer to blend in. They even have their own word for it: ‘Jantelagen’, the Scandinavian answer to Australia and New Zealand’s ‘tall poppy syndrome’. 

It roughly translates as: ‘Don’t think you’re better than anyone else.’

And so it’s quite understandable that its government’s maverick response to the coronavirus crisis is making many in the country feel uneasy.

After all, Sweden is the last major European country to have most of its schools, bars and restaurants still open.

Yes, the government has asked people to work from home if possible, and those over 70 have been instructed to stay indoors, while visits to elderly care homes have been banned.

But there have been no official lockdown directives – even though there have been more than 4,000 cases of infection and 180 deaths.

It’s quite understandable that the Swedish government’s maverick response to the coronavirus crisis is making many in the country feel uneasy, writes Paul Connolly (Pictured: Locals in a bar in Stockholm last week)

The only steps the Social Democratic-led coalition has taken is to close universities and higher education colleges, as well as to order restaurants and bars to serve people only at tables rather than at the crammed bar.

There’s also a ban on public gatherings. But with the limit set at 50 people, it’s significantly more generous than other European countries, such as the UK, where the maximum is two.

Indeed, Swedish children under the age of 16, including my six-year-old twins, are still going to school, while bars and restaurants are still relatively busy.

On paper, Sweden appears to be surviving this virus. For example, it reported its first coronavirus-related death on March 11 – by which point there had been eight fatalities in the UK and 800 in Italy.

And according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, there have been only 14 coronavirus-related deaths per million people in Sweden, far fewer than in Italy (192), Spain (157) and the UK (21).

But relying on these statistics can be misleading. For while Sweden’s death rate may appear strikingly low, that could be because it has succeeded only in delaying – rather than preventing – a fatal outbreak. 

Indeed, Sweden’s current rate of infection is already relatively high. If you look at the number of reported cases per 100,000 of the Swedish population (39.6), it’s greater than the UK’s (33.8). And so the Swedish government’s strategy doesn’t sit well with many citizens. 

Pictured: People walk at Strandvagen in Stockholm on March 28 amid the growing coronavirus crisis

After all, its neighbours Denmark, Finland, and Norway – all of which have fewer fatalities – introduced stringent lockdown measures, such as closing workplaces and schools, weeks ago.

Just last week, more than 2,000 Swedish university researchers published a joint letter questioning the government’s response.

Professor Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, a virus immunology researcher, said: ‘We’re not testing enough, we’re not tracking, we’re not isolating enough – we have let the virus loose. 

‘They are leading us to catastrophe.’ 

Meanwhile, Fredrik Elgh, a virology professor at Umea University, recently told SVT News: ‘I’d rather Stockholm was quarantined. We are almost the only country in the world not doing everything we can to curb the infection. This is bloody serious.’

Denmark bucks the trend and sets out its plan for returning to normal life 

Denmark will become the first European country to set out a timetable for returning to normal life.

Prime minister Mette Frederiksen said the country could begin returning to normality after Easter if deaths and infections continue on their ‘stable and reasonable’ trajectory.

She said the virus has ‘spread more slowly than feared’ but also warned that it ‘has not peaked yet’ and ‘many’ will still die. 

When outlining the strategy of virus management while society returns to normal, she added: ‘Can you do both things at once? Yes, you can… we have to do it gradually and staggered.’

Miss Frederiksen hinted schools and offices would be the first to reopen, with employees working at different times. 

On March 11 Denmark was one of the first EU countries to begin a lockdown and has had 2,860 cases and 90 deaths.

When the affable, slightly dull, prime minister, Stefan Lofven, appeared on TV last week, many Swedes expected him to announce, at the very least, the closure of schools for children under 16. 

But no. Lofven merely asked Swedes to take responsibility for theirs and their loved ones’ health.

So why is Lofven and his government taking such a potentially dangerous approach?

Part of the reason is to protect Sweden’s economy. Thanks to the country’s relatively late first case of infection, the government is well aware of the devastating economic impact that enacting an Italy-style lockdown would have on the country.

But there is also one other key Swedish trait that may account for the country’s more restrained attitude: the government trusts its citizens to do the right thing and follow experts’ guidance.

Sweden is still a very community-led nation, especially away from the cities. People firmly believe that community comes first, not the individual.

In my village of Vastantrask, everyone mucks in and those who don’t are soon cast out as pariahs. We even have a lawnmowing rota.

Near my house there has been markedly less activity than usual. As my neighbour said: ‘We don’t need to be forced to help when our country needs us.’

Of course, it also helps that Sweden still generally trusts its experts. During this crisis, Lofven has transparently ceded the floor to the public health authority and his state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who, together, appear to have driven this approach.

Meanwhile, despite disquiet in the country’s scientific community, most Swedes seem to trust the government. 

In a recent poll published by daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, just over half of Swedes said they thought their country’s response to coronavirus had so far been ‘well-balanced’.

Tegnell and Lofven have not ruled out implementing stricter measures if the situation worsens.

But in the meantime Sweden will continue to play an ambitious long game to protect its economy, citizens and society. 

And while the Swedes may not like being the centre of attention, if this risky strategy limits the loss of life and prevents the prolonged agony of a wrecked economy, they may well forgive the government for thrusting them into the global spotlight.

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