In Depth

How Sweden went from coronavirus outlier to Europe’s most infected country

Region declares ‘personal lockdown’ as patients in ICU hits new high

Sweden is recording Europe’s highest number of coronavirus infections per head, forcing the country’s most populous region to warn that “all human contact” is a “potential risk”.

The Scandinavian nation became an object of global fascination last year when it shunned lockdown measures while the rest of the world enforced shutdowns to stem the spread of Covid-19.

It has “gradually ratcheted up its still mostly voluntary restrictions”, The Guardian says, but now has a seven-day average of 616 new infections per million people, according to Oxford University tracking.

Poland is the closest country to Sweden’s infection rate, reporting 564 new cases per week. The figure is far higher than the per-million totals in Sweden’s neighbours Finland, Denmark and Norway of 65, 113 and 119 respectively.

‘Personal lockdown’

As cases continue to rise across the country, Sweden now has “more being treated in intensive care for the virus than at its second wave peak”, The Telegraph reports.

The region centred on Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth biggest city, is now pushing people to take voluntary precautions more seriously, with “posters and an online campaign” calling on Swedes to consider “all human contacts as a potential risk”, the paper adds.

Mikael Köhler, the region’s health chief, told Sweden's TT newswire that the region is “reaching the point of the maximum capacity of what we can handle”, adding: “It seems like the British variant has taken over and there’s evidence that people are spreading the disease before they have any symptoms.”

“This is not the first time Uppsala has pushed for heavier restrictions”, the paper notes, with Dr Fredrik Sund, who leads the region’s largest infectious diseases clinic, describing the country’s largely voluntary restrictions as “toothless” and calling for a full “lockdown on society” in November.

Despite infections and ICU admissions rising rapidly, Sweden’s death toll has so far not increased. The national health agency said that this is because “many of the most vulnerable, particularly care home residents, are now vaccinated”, The Guardian reports. Oxford University tracking shows that Sweden has administered 2.12 million vaccines, meaning 20.99 per 100 people have received at least one dose. 

However, the country’s death rate remains higher than its neighbours. According to Statista, Sweden has reported 1,358.51 deaths per million people over the course of the pandemic, compared with 422.64 in Denmark, 159 in Finland and 130.23 in Norway.

The Social Democrat-led government of the prime minister, Stefan Lofven, is planning to keep some voluntary restrictions in place amid the rise in infections, including “visitor limits at shops, gyms and museums, and a recommendation to wear face masks in public transport during rush hour”, The Telegraph reports. 

Lofven has “postponed a planned easing of some restrictions in late March until at least 3 May”, The Guardian adds, while also insisting that “tougher measures are not yet needed to bring the latest surge under control”.

Covid experiment

The country’s “light-touch approach to the pandemic” was announced in March last year, The New Yorker reports, and apart from a few additional voluntary restrictions has remained unchanged. 

“The Swedish constitution gives government agencies extraordinary independence”, the magazine continues, meaning that Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s head epidemiologist, “led much of the coronavirus response” while the government had “little power to impose restrictions”.

Responding to Uppsala’s decision to encourage people to observe the restrictions, Tegnell said the region is “saying what we all are saying. You need to cut down on your personal contacts as much as possible, especially people that you don’t normally meet”.

He added that Uppsala has a “difficult situation”, so needs to impose regulations “even more”, but said that further restrictions would not be introduced nationally as “we have the most important restrictions in place”.

“There are no possible new restrictions that could have more effect than the ones we already have,” he added. “What’s important is that we follow them. That’s how we will break the spread of infection.”

After becoming “a symbol for anti-lockdown and no-mask movements across the world”, Sweden is struggling to create “consensus” given its spiralling Covid infections and undisputedly high number of deaths, OpenDemocracy reports.

Sweden’s Public Health Agency recently said “several among its key figures have been granted police protection”, the site adds, while a member of the public said Tegnell should be “executed by a firing squad on live state television” when asked for his thoughts on the street in Stockholm.

In December, both King Carl XVI Gustaf and Prime Minister Lofven acknowledged that the Swedish approach had failed. “But with the Swedish public more divided than ever, politicians appear to increasingly deny the obvious”, OpenDemocracy reports. With the possibility of more lockdown restrictions not on the agenda, “the handling of the pandemic will inevitably leave Swedish society deeply scarred and divided”, the site adds.

Asked by The New Yorker how he felt about the shift in public mood, Tegnell said the number of deaths in Sweden “weighed on him”, adding: “I think this was a big frustration and feeling of failure for us.”

But he “remains steadfast” about the route Sweden has taken, the magazine adds, maintaining that “if other countries were led by experts rather than politicians, more nations would have policies like Sweden’s”.

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