While virtually every nation in the West subjects its citizens to stringent, often draconian lockdown measures in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Sweden is currently the outlier.
According to The Guardian, the Scandinavian nation whose population is roughly that of North Carolina has opted not to close schools for pupils up to 16 years old, kindergartens, bars, restaurants, ski resorts, sports clubs, hairdressers, and more.
It’s not exactly a free-for-all, however. Universities and upper secondary schools have been closed, and the government banned groups of more than 50 people last week.
Not unlike a typical approach to influenza or other infectious diseases, if Swedes develop coronavirus symptoms, they can go back to work or school just two days after being declared “symptom-free.” If a parent develops symptoms, they can still send their children to school.
The Guardian notes that Sweden’s coronavirus death toll has remained low until last week when it rose by over 30 percent in a single day, with 92 people now dead and 209 in intensive care.
While announcing the somewhat tighter restrictions on gatherings and higher education attendance, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven warned that the coming weeks and months would be difficult.
Still, he defended the decision not to implement tighter restrictions as seen in neighboring Denmark, France, or the UK.
“We all, as individuals, have to take responsibility. We can’t legislate and ban everything,” Löfven said. “It is also a question of commonsense behavior.”
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, argues that it is counterproductive to bring in oppressive restrictions too early. “As long as the Swedish epidemic development stays at this level, I don’t see any big reason to take measures that you can only keep up for a very limited amount of time,” he said, according to The Guardian.
Tegnell’s team at the Public Health Agency of Sweden also expressed skepticism of the Imperial College paper that warned in March month that 250,000 people in the UK would die if the government failed to crack down harder on social distancing and closures. A week later, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the police to implement a partial lockdown to combat the virus, telling people they “must stay at home”.
“We have had a fair amount of people looking at it and they are skeptical,” Tegnell said. “They think Imperial chose a number of variables that gave a prognosis that was quite pessimistic, and that you could just as easily have chosen other variables that gave you another outcome. It’s not a peer-reviewed paper. It might be right, but it might also be terribly wrong. In Sweden, we are a bit surprised that it’s had such an impact.”
While many Swedish citizens are perfectly happy with government action taken, more than 2,000 Swedish university researchers published a joint letter on Wednesday disputing the Public Health Agency’s position.
“How many lives are they willing to sacrifice so as not to lockdown and risk greater effects on the economy?” asked Joacim Rocklöv, a professor of epidemiology at Umeå University.
Tegnell also argued that, because Sweden has a distinct lack of stay-at-home parents, closing schools “would have knocked out at least a quarter of doctors and nurses” and crippled its healthcare system’s ability to handle the virus. By pushing children out of schools, the threat to the elderly may even have increased as older relatives are called upon to babysit.
Tegnell even expressed doubt that stopping the progress of the virus is the ultimate goal.
“We are just trying to slow it, because this disease will never go away,” he said. “If you manage, like South Korea, to get rid of it, even they say that they count on it coming back. Stopping it might even be negative, because you would have a pent-up possible spread of the disease, and then once you open the gates, there is a possibility that there would be an even worse outcome.”
Tegnell understood that he would likely be blamed should Sweden go the way of Italy as far as morbidity and mortality, yet he refused to cave to panic. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if it ended up about the same way for all of us, irrespective of what we’re doing,” he said. “I’m not so sure that what we’re doing is affecting the spread very much. But we will see.”
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