What is behind Sweden’s ‘experimental’ coronavirus plan?

Sweden is bucking the international trend in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, implementing few restrictions as other countries across the globe impose stringent lockdown rules.

Opting to take what Bloomberg describes as a “laissez-faire” approach, the authorities in the Nordic country have kept primary schools, restaurants and bars open, and are even encouraging people to go outside.

These hands-off tactics stand “in stark contrast [with] the urgent tone elsewhere” and have “sparked heated debate whether Sweden is really doing the right thing”. 

What is Sweden doing?

The government is taking the advice of experts working for Sweden’s Public Health Agency, known as the Folkhalsomyndigheten.

As the i news site reports, “everyone in Sweden is urged to stay at home if they are at all sick”, and to avoid non-essential travel within the country, work from home if possible, and cancel non-essential visits to elderly people or hospitals.

Universities and senior high schools have been shut, and gatherings of more than 500 are banned.

However, unlike other European health experts, the Folkhalsomyndigheten has given the green light for restaurants, bars and primary schools to remain open.

And Sweden’s former state epidemiologist and current advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO), Johan Giesecke, has actively encouraged people to go out and enjoy the sun, reports The Local.

“Don’t hug your neighbour. Bring a thermos and sit on a park bench,” Giesecke said. “It’s bad for your health to sit at home too.”

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Why is it doing this?

The Financial Times reports that Swedish authorities have said they are not pursuing a strategy of “herd immunity”, the approach briefly referenced in the UK before the implementation of strict lockdown measures.

Instead, the Folkhalsomyndigheten has insisted that its highly relaxed approach to social distancing will result in “a slow spread of infection, and that the health services have a reasonable workload”.

According to Foreign Policy, Sweden’s strategy to contain the coronavirus outbreak has been coloured by a “general preference for evidence-based politics”. Another key factor at play is the liberal nation’s “vastly above-average level of social trust”, the magazine adds.

Historian Lars Tragardh explained: “First, citizens tend to place a lot of faith in public agencies and trust that they act in the public interest. Second, the authorities on their part trust citizens to heed their advice. Third, there is a high level of interpersonal trust where Swedes trust one other to act responsibly.”

Is it working?

As of Friday morning, Sweden had reported 3,046 confirmed coronavirus cases and 92 deaths.

Some experts believe urgent action must be taken to curb the outbreak, with the Journal of the Swedish Medical Association publishing a paper earlier this month in which a group of doctors criticised their government’s approach. 

And in an email thread seen by state broadcaster SVT and published last week, other leading experts also slated the Folkhalsomyndigheten, accusing the health authority of incompetence and lack of medical expertise, reports The Guardian

Fredrik Elgh, a virology professor at Umea University, told SVT that he was “deeply concerned” by the government’s approach.

“We are almost the only country in the world not doing everything we can to curb the infection. This is bloody serious,” Elgh said.

Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, is insisting that any restrictions “must be measures that are sustainable”, adding: “We can’t just say everything needs to be closed for several months.”

However, the Daily Mail reports that the authorities are now considering “cutting off Stockholm from the rest of the country”, after a spike of deaths in the capital.

But many Swedes believe that the more relaxed strategy is the right one, at least for now. 

Kerstin Hessius, CEO of one of Swedish national pension fund AP3, said: “We haven’t shuttered our entire society, as many other countries have. We therefore have good conditions in place to take the next step and plan for a reasonably quick return to normalcy.”


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