Written by: Sophia Halverson
In a world where the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled most of Asia, Europe, and the United States and social distancing has become the norm of the day, Swedish government officials have chosen a different path. Unlike their nearby countries Denmark and Norway, which have closed their borders and universities and issued restrictions on their residents, Sweden has adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach that only includes postponing the most major events, like the opening of the Swedish soccer season. Groups of more than fifty people are also banned. Schools, restaurants, and nonessential systems all remain open as usual.
Prime Minister Stefan Lovfen has called for residents who feel ill or are over the age of 70 to stay home and to limit non essential travel, but hasn’t taken many of the steps to create social distancing measures that many other countries already have. According to Lovfen in a speech in March, “Us adults need to be exactly that: adults. Not spread panic or rumors. No one is alone in this crisis, but each person carries a heavy responsibility.”
The federal government’s lack of action is actually based on data from health authorities, who claim that from the simulations used that Sweden is projected to have far fewer hospitalizations per 100,000 people than predicted in other countries like Denmark, Norway, and the UK. However, the number of deaths predicted for Sweden appears to be much higher, as many infected people do not display symptoms, and only one in five people will need to be hospitalized according to scientists and professors from the University of Lund. The national government also wants to introduce herd immunity, where the majority of the population is exposed to the virus and thus less likely to spread the virus as more and more people receive natural immunity.
However, some locals were not convinced although trust in the public health institutions remained high. Public transport in Stockholm, Sweden’s capital city, dropped 50% last week. Parents are keeping their children at home, even though the schools remain open, and more and more companies have been allowing their employees to work from home.
Now though, it is clear that the Swedish model is not working. A group of 22 researchers from several top Swedish universities say that the Swedish Public Health Agency has claimed on four separate occasions that the spread of infection has been leveling out, which is incorrect. The amount of Swedish deaths due to COVID-19 is also much higher than its Scandinavian neighbors that instituted harsh social distancing measures. According to the Swedish Public Health Agency, 1,033 people have died from COVID-19 in Sweden as of April 14th. 11,445 people have tested positive and 915 people are currently receiving treatment. Sweden’s deaths as a percentage of population are much higher than those of Denmark and Norway. Finland has recorded 10 times fewer deaths than Sweden, due to stringent restriction measures. The researchers came to the conclusion that Swedish people do not understand the seriousness of the situation, because of unclear information from health authorities and government officials. Some are calling on the government to close schools and restaurants, mass test health care professionals, and train professionals in proper infection control equipment while working with the elderly. The elderly are especially at risk, particularly in long term care facilities where there may be limited protective equipment and sanitisation supplies.
According to Sweden’s top epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, “We have had an unfortunate development especially compared to our neighboring countries, with an introduction of the virus at many elderly care homes. . . We have started working hard on this, in coordination with other government agencies.”
However, some economic analysts believe that Sweden’s unorthodox methods will allow them to rebound faster after the pandemic is over, as shutdown hasn’t forced most businesses to close. Some national epidemiologists believe that the method has been effective, as the rates of death and infection are far below countries like Italy and Spain; although they are higher than many surrounding countries, and models show that Sweden’s infection rate may still be climbing, while its neighbor Norway has reached the other side of the curve.
The Swedish government’s blunderous reaction has resulted in an unprecedented number of infections and deaths, especially among the elderly. Some of these deaths could certainly have been alleviated by total lockdown and social distancing, as seen in numerous parts of Europe. While the economic effects of keeping businesses open might help the economy rebound, not instituting shutdowns puts the most vulnerable at risk, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, and economic productivity should not be a substitute for human lives. The government needs to act fast to put the necessary precautions in place so more people aren’t needlessly exposed to the virus.
Sweden’s response has also illuminated the ability of Swedes to take matters into their own hands and cut off nonessential travel on their own terms, including restricting their trips whenever possible and practicing social distancing methods when in public. In Sweden, as around the world, there is plenty the local population can do to minimize the spread of the disease, despite often conflicting instructions from those in government positions. Only by acting in concert can countries truly and effectively tackle the virus, along with widespread testing and proper medical equipment.