The shift in tone is noteworthy given Sweden’s notorious light-touch approach to the pandemic. “It is a clear and sharp signal to every person in our country as to what applies in the future,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said during a news conference Monday. “Don’t go to the gym, don’t go the library, don’t have dinner out, don’t have parties — cancel!”
Sweden had set itself apart from its Nordic neighbors in its laissez-faire policies, joining only autocratic Belarus as the two European nations that eschewed major coronavirus lockdowns when the continent was hit by the first wave. The country’s nursing homes were ravaged by the virus, but life went on largely as usual in much of the rest of the country: Most schools and business remained open, while Swedish health authorities have even counseled against the widespread wearing of masks.
While right-wing politicians in the United States hailed the “Swedish model,” Swedish officials insisted their methods might not be replicable elsewhere. In an interview with Today’s WorldView earlier this year, Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter, the Swedish ambassador in Washington, stressed that widespread trust in the country’s public agencies meant that most Swedes would voluntarily heed social distancing guidelines. Sweden’s robust social safety net and enhanced paid sick leave, she argued, would help ensure more Swedes would stay home if they felt symptoms or feared contracting the virus at their workplaces.
“The virus is going to be around for a long time, so we have to have something we can live with,” Olofsdotter said then, adding that the country could change course if its approach were proven to be ineffective.
That moment may now have arrived. On Friday, Sweden recorded almost 6,000 new daily coronavirus cases. The total number of infections is nearing 200,000 in a country of 10 million people. In Stockholm, the capital, 1 in 5 people are testing positive, and the official number of positive cases could be much higher with more widespread testing. Hospitalizations are rising faster in Sweden than any other European country, and Sweden’s per capita death rate is several times higher than those of its Nordic neighbors Finland, Denmark and Norway.
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has been the stoic face of the country’s strategy. In the summer, he told skeptics to wait till fall before placing judgment on Sweden’s handling of the crisis. He predicted that Sweden would have accrued a higher level of immunity than its neighbors and that the impact of a second wave would “probably be quite low.” Though Tegnell claimed “herd immunity” was never a goal for Sweden, he appeared to believe that the country’s relative laxity would help it weather the worst of the pandemic in the long run.
“I hoped he was right. It would have been great. But he wasn’t,” Annika Linde, Tegnell’s predecessor, told the Daily Telegraph. “Now we have a high death rate, and we have not escaped a second wave: immunity makes a little difference maybe, but not much difference.”
“So far Sweden’s strategy has proven to be a dramatic failure,” Lena Einhorn, a Swedish virologist and vocal opponent of its strategy, told the Financial Times last week. “Four days ago we had eight times higher cases per capita than Finland and three and a half times more than Norway. They were supposed to have it worse off than us in the autumn because we were going to have immunity.”
In recent interviews, Tegnell has remained somewhat defiant. “No, we will keep on this path,” he told Reuters on Friday, referring to the government’s faith in Swedes voluntarily following his agency’s recommendations. “This is how we work in Sweden. We have big understanding for this and a huge adherence to the rules.”
He also added that governments elsewhere are now seeing the virtues of Sweden’s initial response. “Almost no one is closing schools now, for instance,” Tegnell said.
But with the toll of the virus growing, some experts believe that the Swedish experiment is nearing its end and that it may be time for more systematic measures, including a broader lockdown. “We have seen in the past few weeks that the restrictions are not complied with,” Fredrik Sund, head of the infectious-disease clinic at the university hospital in the Swedish region of Uppsala, told state broadcaster SVT last week. “With such a rise in infections as is now happening, it is as if we in Sweden are in free fall.”
“The Swedish authorities have been slow all the time,” Linde told the Telegraph. “Instead of being proactive, they’ve run after the virus, and the virus has been able to spread too much before they take action.”