In Depth

Is Sweden’s ‘experimental’ coronavirus plan working?

Thousands of Swedish doctors and scientists call on government to change tack

Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to tackling the coronavirus outbreak may be about to drastically change direction to prevent further deaths.

Authorities in the Nordic country have so far bucked international trends, opting to keep primary schools, restaurants and bars open, and have even been encouraging people to go outside.

What is Sweden doing?

The government is taking the advice of experts working for Sweden’s Public Health Agency, known as the Folkhalsomyndigheten.

As the i news site reports, “everyone in Sweden is urged to stay at home if they are at all sick”, and to avoid non-essential travel within the country, work from home if possible, and cancel non-essential visits to elderly people or hospitals.

Universities and senior high schools have been shut, and gatherings of more than 500 are banned.

However, unlike other European health experts, the Folkhalsomyndigheten has given the green light for restaurants, bars and primary schools to remain open.

And Sweden’s former state epidemiologist and current advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO), Johan Giesecke, had actively encouraged people to go out and enjoy the sun, reports The Local.

“Don’t hug your neighbour. Bring a thermos and sit on a park bench,” Giesecke said. “It’s bad for your health to sit at home too.”

But now, Sweden may be changing tactics. The Swedish government is drawing up new legislation to allow it to take “extraordinary steps” to combat the coronavirus, according to local media.

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Why is it so hands off?

The Financial Times reports that Swedish authorities have said they are not pursuing a strategy of “herd immunity”, the approach briefly referenced in the UK before the implementation of strict lockdown measures.

Instead, the Folkhalsomyndigheten has insisted that its highly relaxed approach to social distancing will result in “a slow spread of infection, and that the health services have a reasonable workload”.

According to Foreign Policy, Sweden’s strategy to contain the coronavirus outbreak has been coloured by a “general preference for evidence-based politics”. Another key factor at play is the liberal nation’s “vastly above-average level of social trust”, the magazine adds.

Historian Lars Tragardh explained: “First, citizens tend to place a lot of faith in public agencies and trust that they act in the public interest. Second, the authorities on their part trust citizens to heed their advice. Third, there is a high level of interpersonal trust where Swedes trust one other to act responsibly.”

Is it working?

Sweden has reported a total of 477 deaths, more than the totals of its three Nordic neighbours combined, according to real-time statistics website Worldometer

Its toll per million people is 47, more than Denmark (32), Norway (14) and Finland (5).

Unlike Swedish leaders, authorities in its neighbouring nations have enforced a stricter lockdown, shutting schools and non-essential shops and closing borders.

Some experts believe urgent action must be taken to curb the outbreak, with the Journal of the Swedish Medical Association publishing a paper earlier this month in which a group of doctors criticised their government’s approach. 

And in an email thread seen by state broadcaster SVT and published last week, other leading experts also slated the Folkhalsomyndigheten, accusing the health authority of incompetence and lack of medical expertise, reports The Guardian

Fredrik Elgh, a virology professor at Umea University, told SVT that he was “deeply concerned” by the government’s approach.

“We are almost the only country in the world not doing everything we can to curb the infection. This is bloody serious,” Elgh said.

Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, is insisting that any restrictions must be sustainable.

“It is important to have a policy that can be sustained over a longer period, meaning staying home if you are sick,” he said recently. “Locking people up at home won’t work in the longer term. Sooner or later people are going to go out anyway.”

The Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven warned on Monday: “We are facing thousands of deaths. We need to prepare for that.”

Despite that, Lovfen has refused to put the country on lockdown, saying: “We’re doing it in a somewhat different way. Sometimes that is because we are in different phases.”

But a petition signed by more than 2,300 doctors, scientists, and professors - including the chairman of the Nobel Foundation, professor Carl-Henrik Heldin - has called on the government to increase restrictions.

Professor Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, a virus immunology expert at the Karolinska Institute, said: “We’re not testing enough, we’re not tracking, we’re not isolating enough – we’ve let the virus loose.

“They are leading us to catastrophe.”

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