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People queue outside a shop selling Halloween costumes, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in central Stockholm
Image: Amir Nabizadeh/TT News Agency/REUTERS

Sweden keeps laid-back COVID-19 strategy

David Ehl
November 7, 2020

Despite rising infection rates, Sweden is sticking to its relatively relaxed approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic. But not everyone in the country is pleased with this tactic.


"The trends are quickly going in the wrong direction," Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven wrote on Facebook earlier this week. "More are infected. More are dying. This is a serious situation."

This post was the first from the prime minister since he went into self-isolation, after revealing that someone close to him had had contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

By taking this step, Lofven is going beyond his government's own coronavirus regulations. There is almost no country in the world where a second-degree contact is required to go into quarantine, let alone Sweden.

Read more: Denmark tightens lockdown over mink coronavirus mutation

To this day, the Scandinavian country has almost completely done without strict rules, and has instead tried to manage the pandemic by issuing recommendations. "If you are confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19, you should stay at home for at least seven days after the illness breaks out," the public health agency recommends on its website. The question of whether the recommendations must be followed is answered by "yes and no."

The agency, advised by chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, is the command center for Sweden's pandemic fight. In Scandinavia, such specialist departments have always had a large influence on politics.

Different countries, different restrictions

Sweden, like the rest of Europe, has been experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few weeks. But the country has not wavered in its adherence to the now world-famous Swedish pandemic strategy, which is based on the philosophy that people are more likely to accept restrictions in the long term if an appeal is made to their common sense, than if they are forced to obey.

Read more: Coronavirus: EU says economy will only bounce back in 2023

Lena Einhorn was one of the early opponents of this strategy. In April, the 66-year-old filmmaker, author and former virologist, along with 21 other like-minded people, published a comprehensive and scientifically informed criticism of Sweden's coronavirus plan.

Speaking with DW, she said that Sweden has once again been hit harder than its neighbors, as was the case earlier this year. "And the difference is that they have different restrictions than we do," she said. Denmark has introduced a stoplight system to handle the pandemic, with far-reaching restrictions on public life. Norway, meanwhile, has made it obligatory to work from home in high-risk areas.

A wash your hands sign at the Artilleriet cafe in downtown Göteburg
During the summer, Sweden was seen as 'heaven on Earth' for its lax approach to the pandemicImage: picture-alliance/A. Farnsworth

'Taboo to wear a mask'

One major difference is immediately apparent on the street. "If you walk through the streets in Stockholm or go into a store, no one there is wearing a face mask," said Einhorn. "You see only a few people with one on public transport. It's downright taboo to wear a mask."

Even though the scientific consensus wasn't quite clear at the start of the pandemic, it's now considered as established fact that the spread of the virus can be slowed with face masks that cover the mouth and nose. Masks are now a part of daily life in Norway, Finland and Denmark, said Einhorn.

"They were also late, but now all the other Scandinavian countries are using face masks. There's only a handful of countries that still do without them, and Sweden is one of them," she said.

Belgium: second wave

At first, Sweden was seen as 'heaven on Earth'

Einhorn doesn't expect Sweden to make fundamental changes to its strategy anytime soon. At press conferences, it's been mostly international journalists who have posed the critical questions, she said.

"At first, they said: 'Wow, perhaps they are right,'" said Einhorn. "Then there were more and more deaths in Sweden and we became a monster; everyone thought Sweden was mad." At one point, Sweden had the highest mortality rate in the world, with many older victims; in many other countries, older people were more effectively shielded from infection.

Read more: Trump blasts Europe's 'draconian' new lockdowns

"In summer, when there were fewer deaths, and Sweden again became a heaven on Earth," said Einhorn. "And when the cases rose in many countries in the fall and there was opposition to a new lockdown, Sweden became the idol of libertarians. But that's no longer the case, now that cases are going up again in Sweden."

Support for the public health agency and state epidemiologist Tegnell is still strong. Unlike its neighbors, Sweden can barely afford to impose stricter regulations. "Our government has very little support. As long as the health agency is so popular, the government won't be able to compete with it," said Einhorn.

This article has been translated from German by Timothy Jones.

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