News and Commentary

Is Sweden’s Relaxed COVID-19 Response Actually Working?
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, APRIL 10: People hang out in a coffee shop in central Stockholm amid the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Stockholm, Sweden, April 10, 2020. Swedish authorities have advised the public to practice social distancing to steam the spread of the virus, although they have not imposed a lockdown as elsewhere in Europe. During Easter celebrations Sweden has been urged to avoid travel and visits to relatives, but people still gathering outdoor in public space, coffee shops and restaurants.
Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As the coronavirus rampages its way across the United States and Europe, shutting down the world economy as a result, all eyes have turned toward the Scandinavian country of Sweden to see if its relaxed approach toward the pandemic has yielded any positive dividends.

Though Sweden has quarantined its nursing homes, banned gatherings of over 50 people, and moved higher-education online, the country has also allowed lower education, gyms, bars, and restaurants to stay operational.  Writing for Ireland’s RTE, Juliette Gash noted that policy in Sweden has largely been an emphasis on personal responsibility, with authorities encouraging people to work from home if possible. In many ways, Sweden’s current measures may foretell the United States’ when it cautiously reopens the economy.

The question remains: Is Sweden’s approach actually working? That depends on who you ask and who’s defining the data. Here’s how RTE broke it down:

As of today, over 1,000 Swedes have died from Covid-19, an increase of 114 deaths on the previous day’s figure and around 11,440 have been infected, out of a population of 10 million.

Compare that with Ireland, where 406 people have died and over 11, 000 people have been confirmed infected, but the Irish population is less than half Sweden’s.

As is often the case, Sweden is being compared to its nearest neighbours; figures in other Nordic countries are considerably lower, they’ve also imposed much stricter rules on public gatherings.

Denmark (population 5.6 million) has seen 300 deaths and 6,500 cases, Norway (5.3 million) has seen a death toll of 140 with 6,600 cases, while Finland (5.5 million) has been relatively unscathed with 64 deaths and just 3,000 cases.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, told reporters that the country’s higher death toll likely stems from a variety of factors that people should consider, most especially, the contagion’s spread in nursing homes, which have been under quarantine.

“Partly that we are on different places on the exposition curve, partly that we in Sweden, unfortunately, have had a large spread of contagion in elderly homes, something you have not seen in the other Nordic countries,” said Tegnell. “And this we, of course, continue to analyse, why Swedish elderly homes have been exposed so much compared to other countries. But if we compare Sweden with Belgium, the US and a number of other countries our death rates are rather low.”

Tegnell had previously said that neighboring countries strict lockdown measures were strictly political decisions, not scientific ones. As reported by Forbes, 22 scientists in Sweden penned an op-ed for Dagens Nyheter, sharply criticizing the government for not implementing stricter lockdown measures, arguing that the “personal responsibility” approach has failed to make people take the virus seriously.

“The researchers say the agency has claimed on four different occasions that the spread of infection has levelled out, despite evidence to the contrary,” Forbes said of the op-ed. “The researchers now want rapid change. They suggest that schools and restaurants should be closed as in Finland. In addition, healthcare professionals working with the elderly must use proper infection control equipment and a mass testing of health personnel must be carried out.”

The feasibility of Sweden’s approach will depend on whether or not the death toll and case numbers spike to such a degree that the country resembles Italy.

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