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Coronavirus: Sweden still skiing despite concerns

March 25, 2020

Sweden have adopted a completely different tactic to most of the rest of Europe to combat coronavirus. With Europe in partial shutdown, Sweden's ski resorts remain open — much to the displeasure of the locals. 

Ski alpin Weltmeisterschaft in Are Schweden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

While the rest of Europe is moving further down the path towards varying degrees of lockdown, impacting everyday life, Sweden has opted for a very different approach. This applies to all areas of life, including participation in sports such as skiing. In Sweden, most measures designed to combat the coronavirus are strictly voluntary. The health authorities recommend staying at home where possible and refraining from traveling, even within the country. But there are no curfews or restrictions on personal contact. 

Although larger gatherings have now been banned, the ceiling is not a maximum of two people, as in Germany, for example, but 500. The country's borders, hotels and restaurants all remain open. It's business as usual in the country's kindergartens and for pupils up to the 9th grade. Only high school and university students are being forced to stay home. People returning from abroad don't have to go into self-isolation when they return, not even doctors or lawyers. And if someone in Sweden does happen to develop coronavirus symptoms, the rest of their household still has the freedom of movement.

Belief in immunity 

Anders Tegnell, the Swedish public health authority's top disease-control official, is putting his faith in the positive effect of what's known as herd immunity, just as Britain did at first. The idea is that while older people and others who are at risk should be protected from the virus, it's no big deal for younger people without an existing health problem to become infected. Tegnell is hoping that this will lead to a large proportion of the Swedish population becoming immune to the virus, which in turn will lose its effectiveness in the long term. 

However, it has not yet been proven that herd immunity to SARS-CoV2 exists, and if it does, how long it might last. Therefore, many people in Sweden are critical of the health authority's guidelines and favor the tactics used by most other European countries. 

'Think of us, you egoists!'

Just how different the Swedish approach has been from countries in Central Europe or even its Scandinavian neighbors becomes clear when you consider the fact that Swedish ski resorts remain open. The ski lifts are still operating in places like Are or Salen, the country's two biggest ski resorts. Since Saturday, though, the bars, pubs and clubs that make up the après ski scene have been closed. Prior to that, many establishments had been careful to admit no more than 499 party guests, so as not to fall foul of government regulations. 

According to Swedish media reports, the over 30,000 beds at accommodations in Are were full last weekend, as guests continue to pour in from all over the country. And the resort town of 2,800 inhabitants is not amused. The Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet published a photo of a handwritten sign hung up in Are railway station, calling on visitors to heed the health authority's advice by staying home where possible.  

"Think of us who live here, you egoists!" read the last line of the sign. 

Disappointed by the neighbors 

The Apincenter in Meraker is located on the Norwegian side of the border, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Are. It closed down a few days ago.  

"It was hard when we had to close down,” managing director Arne-Magnus Storseth, told DW. "We're a small facility and we invested in the facility at the start of the season to attract more visitors to Meraker. This cost a lot of money. Now we've had to close during the best part of the season instead of having a lot of days with tourists and school groups skiing here."  

The loss, according to Storseth, will probably run to about €200,000 ($216,000). While he is still working on the assumption that his lifts will be running again at Easter, he is a little disappointed by neighbors in Sweden.  

"I think the Swedish authorities should be more restrictive than they have been so far,” he said.  

Anders Tegnell
Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist, does not believe in strict restrictionsImage: picture-alliance/TT/F. Sandberg

At the same time, he sees no direct danger of infection for himself and his countrymen. "Norway has closed its borders,” he said "And anyone who travels to Sweden and returns will automatically be quarantined. So we don't really have to worry about the virus spreading from Sweden to Norway."  

In fact there has so far not been a single confirmed case of the coronavirus among Meraker country's 2,500 inhabitants, despite its proximity to Sweden. 

The only thing likely to bring about a change in thinking there would be a sudden spike in the number of people infected with the coronavirus. So far, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University, 2,059 Swedes have tested positive, 16 have recovered and 33 have died (as of 11 a.m. CET on March 24). Health facilities are limited, particularly in remote areas like the ones in which ski resorts are located. In the case of a major outbreak hospital wards could quickly become overwhelmed, so that adequate care for all patients could no longer be assured.

No recommendation to close skiing areas 

Representatives of the Swedish health authorities and some ski resorts met on Monday to discuss the current situation. "We already know that there is a risk of infection there," the Dagens Nyheter later quoted Tegnell as saying. 

The country's top epidemiologist will have been thinking of the Austrian town of Ischgl, where many people were infected with the coronavirus, not to mention the ski resorts of northern Italy. However, he still concluded that recommending the immediate closure of Sweden's ski resorts was not necessary "in the current situation.” It remains to be seen whether they could still be closed before the end of the season. 

The 63-year-old's only advice to those planning a trip to one of Sweden's ski resorts anytime soon was: "Think twice about it.” In his mind, a more important piece of advice is not to visit one's elderly relatives at Easter.