Sweden’s longtime refusal to impose a general lockdown has seen it portrayed as an alternative “model” for coping with the pandemic. Yet death rates in its care homes have been appalling — and as a scandal that broke last month highlighted, much of the blame lies with the breakup and privatization of the country’s once-mighty public services.
by Anton Ösgård
Part 2 - Strategy: Isolate the Vulnerable
What really happened when COVID-19 reached Sweden? Reporting in international media paints a picture that something different is going on there, but it can be hard to make sense of whether it is good or bad.
The health authorities in this small Scandinavian country decided to go against the grain and never imposed a lockdown. This distinguished it from its Nordic neighbors: in those countries, similarly famous for their welfare states, quarantine measures were quickly imposed and are still in place to various degrees. Sweden’s population, it could be said, instead became test subjects for a divergent, ostensibly laissez-faire strategy of “personal responsibility.” People were asked to follow the authorities’ advice and guidance in the face of a global pandemic — unexpected for a country known for its far-reaching interventionist state.
At the beginning of the outbreak, Sweden experienced a sharp rise in case numbers, just like its neighbors. In early April, Norway and Sweden were the countries in the region with the most confirmed cases. When Denmark, Finland, and Norway soon thereafter imposed lockdowns and other measures, Sweden quickly diverged from the group.
At the end of April, when Denmark reached similar per-capita infection rates, it reacted swiftly with measures then regarded as “harsh,” closing the borders to the other Nordic countries. Yet as the pandemic progressed, all but Sweden followed suit. And today, it has a little over 124,000 confirmed cases — more than all the other Nordic countries combined. To this, it should be added that Sweden has tested a substantially smaller part of the population compared to its neighbors — almost twice as many tests that are done there come back positive.
In Sweden, restaurants, hairdressers, and shops remained open even as they closed down in the other Nordic countries. The strategy was, instead, to keep vulnerable groups in society isolated, primarily the elderly. In March, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven appealed to the elderly to stay home. He admitted that it would be “boring” to be limited to one’s home or care facility but appealed to their self-interest by saying that “it’s for your own health’s sake.” Even though this was not mandatory, Sweden’s older population came closest to experiencing something like a lockdown.
But the strategy quickly failed — the spread of the virus did not decline, nor did this approach protect the elderly. In fact, almost half of those who died were living in elderly care home facilities — places that were supposed to be keeping them safe and isolated. So, what went wrong?