Comfort Over Containment: Sweden’s Relaxed Response to COVID-19

The Swedish Minister for EU Affairs, Hans Dahlgren, sits down with ECDC experts.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries all over the world have taken measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Many have implemented strict guidelines on their citizens, banning large gatherings of people and enforcing social isolation. Heavy restrictions have been placed on traveling, limiting transportation unless it is absolutely necessary. Many countries have even adopted lockdown measures to keep the virus from spreading. Sweden’s approach to handling the COVID-19 outbreak, however, sticks out from the norm. Their laidback response, inconsistent with the recommended guidelines set forth by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has raised controversy and criticism from other European countries and the world. However, due to recent events, Sweden’s authorities are starting to rethink their strategy, as statistics indicate a rising death rate from COVID-19.

Compared to other countries, Sweden’s initial response to the pandemic seemed to prioritize comfort over containment. While the country has taken action by isolating its elderly population, closing schools for students over 16 years old, and banning large gatherings of 500 or more people, everything else has mostly remained unchanged. Restaurants are still open, public transport is in service, and people are out on the streets carrying on with their daily lives. The country’s Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, states that he has faith in the citizens of Sweden, trusting that they will use their common sense to help the country get through the pandemic. The country’s officials have also argued that their soft approach in handling the virus favors a strategy of mitigation: allowing the virus to spread slowly instead of suddenly to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, explained that the goal is to “flatten the curve”, controlling the influx of COVID-19 cases and hence making medical equipment more available for those who need it. Tegnell mentioned that it is essential for part of the population to develop immunity to the virus, but denied trying to create “herd immunity,” a strategy first put into motion by the UK and the Netherlands before rising death tolls forced the two countries to change course. Löfven stated that he believed the COVID-19 crisis would only span a few weeks, and that the outbreak would eventually be averted. But recently, Sweden saw an increase in deaths caused by COVID-19, reporting up to 401 deaths last Sunday, an 8% increase from last Saturday and overtaking Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined in total coronavirus deaths.

The rising death rates have Swedish officials rethinking their strategy. Löfven admits that the crisis would probably last months, and is pushing for sterner measures to be implemented in order to fight the virus. However, his proposal to bypass parliament to implement these measures was turned down after receiving criticism both internationally and nationally for putting the lives of the Swedish citizens at risk. Critics argue that it would be impossible for Sweden to contain the virus if all of its citizens are potentially asymptomatic, walking around spreading the disease to others. Sweden has recognised the dangers, and has taken action by lowering the limit on public gatherings from 500 to 50 people, limiting travel within the country, and encouraging social isolation. Löfven has pushed for more powers to help update Sweden’s containment status and implement a lockdown. 

Despite the widely received backlash, some argue that Sweden’s original strategy has the means to maintain the country’s economic vitality. Emma Frans, a doctor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, confirms that the goal of the response was to “implement [measures] that you can practice for a long time.” Tegnell also supports this claim, stating that going into a complete lockdown for an undetermined amount of time would leave people unemployed, making it hard for those people to get by. Not everyone can afford to work from home, and Sweden’s political leaders took that into consideration. The initial response was meant to isolate only those who were most prone to the virus, while the rest continued contributing to the money flow. Theoretically speaking, implementing this strategy would make it so that when the pandemic eventually subsides, Sweden will not have to rebuild its economy. The COVID-19 pandemic is leaving a devastating impact on the global economy; most countries will have to rebuild themselves until the health of the economy is restored.

With death rates steadily rising, Sweden has abandoned its initial strategy in hopes of better containing the rapidly spreading virus. While its original plan focused on the future and avoiding economic ruin, the results will only be short term, as there will be no future for Sweden if the COVID-19 pandemic gets them first.

Photo from Shutterstock.