Monday, April 06, 2020

Sweden's trusting laissez faire approach to COVID-19 may not be enough

Right back to COVID-19 (because it is undeniably a fascinating subject, and throws up all sorts of issues - moral, economic, political, scientific).
It's not such a big surprise when countries like Belarus, Iran, even America for a time, are in denial about the pandemic. But when you see pictures of busy shopping streets and thriving playgrounds in Stockolm, it tends to elicit a double take.
Sweden has always gone its own way in many areas, defiantly independent, supremely confident in the superiority of its own social welfare model. The country has a high per capita income, universal healthcare, free education right up to university level, and a high regard for civil liberties, gender equality and human development. It is a country that seems to have got it right in most spheres of human life, eminently sensible and reliably prudent.
And then along came COVID-19, and people are now starting to wonder at sensible, judicious Sweden's response to the pandemic. Sweden has not instituted any kind of lockdown, no school closings (for under-16s anyway), no ban on going to the pub or restaurant. Most pools and gyms remain open. Its government is pursuing what it calls a "common sense" response to the outbreak, low key, fiscally prudent, and, in the view of many - even equally sensible Scandinavian neighbours like Denmark, Norway and Finland - totally inadequate.
It has introduced some non-specific social distancing measures and encouraged (but not mandated) people to work from home where possible. Gatherings larger than 50 are prohibited, although this measure was only introduced on March 29th. Some businesses like ski resorts and cinemas have voluntarily closed, but they were under no obligation to do so, and there is no policing of closures or social distancing practices. The government insists that this softly-softly voluntary approach has been been "working reasonably well so far". It has denied pursuing a "herd immunity" policy, but health officials appear resigned that the virus will necessarily work its way through a certain proportion of the population.
Surveys always show that Swedes have an unusual amount of trust in their governments and institutions (and vice versa), and in each other, which is all well and good when things are going well. It also helps that, unusually, nearly half of Swedish households consist of a single person, and large multi-generational households are almost unheard of. Also, Swedes do not, by nature, kiss and hug as much as southern Europeans do.
But all of this may not be enough to allow the country to navigate this particular pandemic unscathed with such a laissez faire approach. Sweden's death rate, at 37 per million, is already much higher than neighbouring countries with much stricter precautions, countries like Denmark (28), Norway (13) and Finland (4.5). Canada's death rate is about 6.5 per million. In Sweden, 401 people have alread died as of April 5th, and that number is rising fast. 6,830 cases have been reported in the country to date, also rising fast.
Not everyone is happy with the official policy, even within Sweden. 2,300 Swedish doctors and public health experts recently signed an open letter calling on the government to pursue a more proactive and hands-on direction, while there is still time. One virus immunology researcher at the prestigious Karolinska Institute goes so far as to say, "They are leading us to cstastrophe".
It certainly seems like a high-risk, not to say rash, strategy in the face of mounting evidence from around the world. But those Swedes still trust their government.

Two months later, as Sweden sits with one of the highest per capita coronavirus death rates in the world, Swedish health authorities and politicians are starting to admit that its controversial policy was wrong. Top doctor Anders Tegnell admitted that the decision not to lockdown probably directly led to many more deaths than necessary and, as he rather tersely puts it, there is "potential for improvement in what we have done".
Maybe that old Divine Comedy song about Sweden ("Safe and clean and green and modern / Bright and breezy, free and easy /  Sweden, Sweden, Sweden, in Sweden") is starting to sound outdated...

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