Sweden Says Relaxed Coronavirus Response Is Working, Despite Highest Fatalities in Scandinavia

The Swedish flag is pictured on April 4, 2020 in Stockholm during the the new coronavirus COVID-19 pamdemic. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Sweden’s chief epidemiologist believes the country’s more relaxed coronavirus response is showing signs of working, despite Sweden having more COVID-19 fatalities than other Scandinavian countries.

As countries across Europe have restricted the movement of their citizens, Sweden stands out for what the country’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has called a “low-scale” approach that “is much more sustainable” over a longer period.

“We’re on a sort of plateau,” Tegnell told Swedish media outlet TT, according to Bloomberg News.

On Friday, the head of the microbiology department at Sweden’s Public Health Authority, Karin Tegmark Wisell, concurred with this assessment.

“The trend we have seen in recent days, with a more flat curve — where we have many new cases, but not a daily increase — is stabilizing,” Wisell said. “We are seeing the same pattern for patients in intensive care.”

Even so, Sweden’s fatalities and confirmed cases are significantly higher in comparison to other Scandinavian countries. According to the tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University, the coronavirus deaths and confirmed cases for Scandinavia are:

  • Norway: 165 deaths; 7,078 confirmed cases
  • Denmark: 355 deaths; 7,580 confirmed cases
  • Finland: 94 deaths; 3,783 confirmed cases
  • Iceland: 9 deaths; 1,771 confirmed cases
  • Sweden: 1,540 deaths; 14,385 confirmed cases

It should be noted, however, that Sweden’s population of 10.2 million is almost double many of its neighbors, with Denmark’s population at 5.8 million; Norway, 5.3 million; Finland, 5.5 million; and Iceland, over 364,000.

The Scandinavian countries in general all avoided the fatalities seen in Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. But their manner of getting there has differed.

Sweden has banned gatherings larger than 50 people and encouraged citizens to self-isolate if they are over 70 years old or have a pre-existing condition that puts them at greater risk from the coronavirus. While high schools and universities in Sweden have closed, schools for younger children have remained open. Sweden’s restaurants and most businesses have also remained open.

Neighboring Denmark, like much of Europe, imposed a stricter lockdown four weeks ago that led to the closing of its borders, schools, and businesses. The Danes are now discussing reopening their country.

Sweden’s ability to flatten the curve was also aided by the fact that more Swedes work from home than any other European country, and over half of Swedish households are single-person residences, which makes social distancing easier.

However, while most businesses in Sweden are still operating, the economic cost of the pandemic is already being felt there, just as it is all across Europe and the world. According to the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, over 25,000 Swedes registered as unemployed last week, which is a larger increase than during the 2008 financial crisis.

It is still a matter of debate whether Sweden’s more relaxed approach will lead to a better economic outcome, as it is still too soon to tell whether there will be any significant difference between Sweden’s coronavirus-related economic retraction and that of countries like Denmark who took a stricter shutdown approach.

But some observers are optimistic. HSBC Global Research economist James Pomeroy said, “While Sweden’s unwillingness to lock down the country could ultimately prove to be ill-judged, for now, if the infection curve flattens out soon, the economy could be better placed to rebound.”

It also appears that Swedes changed their own economic and social behavior in response to the virus without the need for government-imposed restrictions.

Bloomberg News reports that travel “from Stockholm to Gotland — a popular vacation destination — dropped by 96% over the Easter weekend, according to data from the country’s largest mobile operator, Telia Company. And online service Citymapper’s statistics indicate an almost 75% drop in mobility in the capital.”

Lars Ostergaard, chief consultant and professor at the Department of Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, believes it is too soon to know whether Denmark or Sweden’s approach is best.

“Every day a person is not being infected because of the strict lockdown, we are a day closer to a cure,” Ostergaard said, underlining the advantage of the Danish approach. But he acknowledges that the long-term consequences of a locked-down community could also be “substantial.”

“There is no right or wrong way,” Ostergaard said. “No one has walked this path before, and only the aftermath will show who made the best decision.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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