The Swedish response: method in madness?

Ella McCaffrey on Sweden's novel approach to the coronavirus, and what we can learn from it

Ella McCaffrey
26th April 2020
Image: Per Pettersson on Flickr
More than a third of the global population are now subject to lockdown measures in order to combat the spiralling coronavirus pandemic.

Ostensibly, strict lockdowns are the most effective way to mitigate the virus: as such, most European countries have closed their borders, banned unnecessary travel and ordered people to stay at home. In stark contrast, the Swedish government has adopted a laissez-faire response to the pandemic. Are Sweden conducting a dangerous social experiment, or have the Swedes opted for an approach that is justifiable because it can be sustained? 

Swedish bars and restaurants remain open during lockdown
Image: Peter Fristedt on Flickr

What are Sweden doing?

Acting on advice from Folkhalsomyndigheten, the Swedish Public Health Agency, Sweden has closed senior secondary schools and universities, but restaurants, bars, gyms, primary schools and junior secondary schools remain open. 

Perhaps the most significant feature of their response is the choice to advise rather than enforce social distancing measures. Evidently, Swedes are being trusted to adhere to government advice; Prime Minister Stefan Löfven encapsulated this in a recent speech:

 "Us adults need to be exactly that: adults. Not spread panic or rumours. No one is alone in this crisis, but each person carries a heavy responsibility”.

Of course, criticism of the relaxed Swedish approach is to be expected; perhaps even more so given the latest death toll of over 2200, over 10 times higher than any other Scandanavian country. However, looking at the latest figures, the country's chief epidemiologist argues that the spread of the virus is starting to slow, and that the situation is starting to stabilise. Furthermore, HSBC Global Research Economist James Pomeroy suggests that if the Swedish curve does indeed flatten, the economy will be damaged to a far lesser extent than in other European countries. 

The Prime Minister of Sweden - Stefan Löfven - has called for calm
Image: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency on Flickr

Have Sweden cracked the coronavirus code?

Whether Sweden’s coronavirus response will be successful or calamitous is yet to be determined. Furthermore, the fact that over 50% of Swedes live alone and that more citizens already work from home than anywhere else in Europe will have aided social distancing, thus slowing the spread of infection.

Nevertheless, perhaps what we can learn from the ‘Swedish Experiment’ is that the state’s trust in their citizens was not misplaced. For example, despite the absence of policing and surveillance, CityMapper (an app that maps public transport) has recorded a 75% drop in mobility in Stockholm. Arguably, this speaks to the unusually high and reciprocal nature of state-citizen trust within Sweden. Perhaps this is a phenomenon that could have aided the UK response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kate Lovell's article on the Swedish approach can be found here.

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