STOCKHOLM – Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told his country to prepare for thousands of deaths as the country faces a backlash over its light-touch response to the coronavirus crisis. Löfven admitted that “we will have more seriously ill people who need intensive care”, but played down the distinctiveness of Sweden’s approach, Daily Mail reported.
Swedes have been advised to practice social distancing, but schools, bars and restaurants remain open – to the amazement of neighboring countries that are enforcing strict lockdown. Thousands of doctors and academics including the head of the Nobel Foundation have signed a petition urging tougher action, while one scientist accused Sweden of playing “Russian roulette with the Swedish population”.
The skepticism of Sweden comes amid promising signs that the lockdowns are working for its European neighbors such as Spain, Italy and Germany. Germany’s 3,677 new cases today are the smallest jump since March 22, while growth in new cases in Spain and Italy has fallen to its lowest since the crisis began.
Rather than ordering a lockdown, Sweden has told its citizens to “each take responsibility” for slowing the spread. Gatherings of up to 500 people initially remained permissible, although this has since been hacked down to 50. Only the most vulnerable citizens have been encouraged to self-isolate at home, while visits to nursing homes have been banned.
Restaurants, bars and primary schools remain open, and the streets of Stockholm are quieter than usual but far from a ghost town.
“Everyone is responsible for their own well-being, for their neighbors and their own local community,” said Foreign Minister Ann Linde.
“This applies in a normal situation, and it applies in a crisis situation,” Linde said, stressing that public trust was a key element of Sweden’s strategy.
The government-backed Public Health Agency of Sweden contends that Swedes have enough common sense to practice social distancing of their own volition, adding that such restrictions should be light enough to be maintained for several months.
However, the tone has shifted as cases begin to mount. Sweden’s death toll is now at 401, with 6,830 confirmed infections. In the last week, the infection tally increased by an average of 447 per day, compared to an average of 256 the previous week. The figures are likely much higher in reality, as only patients admitted to hospital and health care personnel are being tested for the virus.
On Wednesday, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell at the country’s Public Health Agency said that while Sweden had observed a relatively flat curve for several weeks, it was now seeing “a fairly steep curve”. Healthcare services have reported shortages in equipment, but they have so far not been overrun like in Italy and Spain.
However, Stockholm plans to open its first field hospital this weekend amid a sharp rise in cases in the capital. Last week, the head of the Nobel foundation Carl-Henrik Heldin was among well over 2,000 physicians and academics who penned an open letter urging Sweden to shape up.
Some even demanded Stockholm, the capital, be locked down after some 50 senior citizens perished in care homes from the virus. But public health officials have expressed skepticism about the viability of lengthy lockdown. Löfven has warned that although the pandemic’s hold on Sweden was slower than in Italy and Spain, it did not necessarily mean fewer deaths.
“We will have more seriously ill people who need intensive care,” he said to Dagens Nyheter, adding, “We are facing thousands of deaths. We need to prepare for that.”
However, he appeared to play down Sweden’s approach when compared with other states, claiming Sweden also wanted to unburden its hospitals.
“I don’t think you ought to dramatize [the differences],” he said, adding, We’re doing it in a different way. Sometimes that is because we are in different phases [of the pandemic].”
There are however signs the tide is turning. Some institutions, such as the Abba museum, closed of their own volition. The social gathering limit has been cut to 50, while high schools and universities are moving to teach online. Authorities have in recent days stepped up pleas to Swedes to stay home for Easter to slow the spread.
King Carl XVI Gustaf yesterday urged Swedes to avoid unnecessary travel over Easter. The holiday is “a time when we are keen to travel and perhaps spend time with family and friends. Many go to church”, the king said in a televised address.
“But, this Easter, some of this will not be possible. We have to accept this. We have to rethink, prepare ourselves for staying home,” he said.
The king, 74, and Queen Silvia, 75, who are considered at risk because of their age, have been self-isolating at a royal castle South of Stockholm, Stenhammars Slott.
One professor of endocrinology at the Karolinska Institute, Olle Kampe, claimed the government had “cynically” permitted the virus to spread in hopes of reaching herd immunity. Herd immunity is achieved when so many people are immune to the virus that it cannot spread and the epidemic comes to a standstill.
It was widely discussed in the UK when the government initially took a lighter touch, although ministers now deny that herd immunity was ever part of their strategy.
But, Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist heading up a coronavirus strategy, said, “We think we’ve already taken the most important measures.”
“Stay home if you feel ill; work from home if you can, and ensure that we protect our older fellow citizens. You could alter other rules, such as those governing trips to the restaurant or gatherings, but you get the best effect when everyone simply sticks to the basic code of conduct,” he said.
Associate professor of political science at Sodertorn University in Stockholm, Nicholas Aylott, chimed in saying Sweden’s strategy had been in part rooted in a national “exceptionalism” – a younger and healthier population than other European countries.
Power between Sweden’s politicians and its civil service is also a factor, with ministers outlining policy and experts deciding how it should be delivered, meaning Sweden’s Covid-19 strategy was directed by Tegnell rather Lofven.
“Who is right? Have Sweden’s neighbors overreacted?” Dr. Aylott blogged, adding, “Or has Sweden under-reacted? No one can tell — yet. There is no guarantee that insulation from politics will bring better outcomes.”