Sweden is a rich, spacious country famous for IKEA, ABBA, dark cold winters, and its unique covid-policies. We escaped London for a few days to see for ourselves what the deal was with this Scandinavian country of 10 million. It is as rich and well-run as the statistics say it is: Stockholm is full of sporty Swedes, spacious parks, shiny public transport, cyclists, and prams. Getting to talk to Swedes requires alcohol and patience, but once they do talk, you find their English is excellent.
In terms of the statistics, Sweden has had a relatively good covid-experience. The number of covid-attributed deaths is 0.06% of the population, average for the EU, without the huge anxiety and mental health disaster befalling other countries. Also, their economy is now estimated to shrink by only 3% in 2020, with the government running a surplus in September. It did not give up civil liberties and had a well-publicised large glut of infections in April-July that got them close to herd immunity. Whilst measured infection rates are rising again in the autumn, there are very few new deaths, suggesting the vulnerable population is either already immune or by now well-protected in a voluntary manner. Did this relative ‘success’ reflect some unique Swedish attribute or was it just luck?
On the one hand, Stockholm is everything a Covista wants to see. You see virtually no masks, the full pubs have minimal distancing, the generations walk together outside, the theaters are open and sold out, children play in packs, and there is a relaxed vibe in the air with people reacting in horror when you tell them of the descent into authoritarianism elsewhere. The place also has quite a few covid-refugees from the rest of Europe who deliberately came to Stockholm to breathe in a bit of sanity and fun. But….
On the other hand, football stadiums are still closed, you see signs everywhere asking you to socially distance, the crowds in shops are not that huge, distancing is stricter outside of the capital, and the city employs hundreds of covid-marshalls who check on rule compliance in restaurants and pubs. So whilst we did manage to sing to live-bands and even managed to dance, we cant tell you where because venues are not supposed to allow this. It is hence a mixed bag.
You also see this mixed bag in opinion polls and in the election campaigning. Many Swedes work from home, would like to see stricter rules on movements, and are attracted to the narrative that the whole population should give up things to protect the elderly. Ericsson, one of the biggest employers, for instance just announced its employees should wear masks at work.
The Swedes are also about the most politically-correct people on the planet, calling themselves a moral superpower, exactly the types who in other countries are at the forefront of lockdowns. The shops sell organic ice cream and oatmilk cappuccinos, and their national history museum tries to claim that the slave business run by the Dutch and the English was actually the fault of the Swedes. I think if there had been a referendum in April, the vast majority would have been pro-lockdowns and even now, many companies and groups want things to be stricter.
So what explains that the Swedes have gone the herd immunity route? I think the honest answer is sheer luck and a willingness to stick to their previous resolutions on how to handle such crises.
The Swedes were lucky that the health authority charged with running things in a health emergency was a group wedded to the herd immunity idea. It wasn’t just Tegnell, but also Giesecke and others close to the agency: they had a group of scientists and public servants strongly committed to what they sincerely thought was the right thing to do, willing to ignore the large swing in opinion and behaviour among public health people elsewhere in Europe. They have had to hide their early expressed opinion that herd immunity was the sensible long-run strategy and simply stuck to the mantra that they needed to take a long-run view and could not justify the experiment of lockdowns.
The Swedes also got lucky with their constitution which I understand forbids the kind of compulsory social distancing and lockdown policies the other countries in Europe and America went for. The thing the Swedes can be proud of is that during the height of the panic, they stuck to their constitution whilst in other countries they did not: my current understanding is that many American governors and European governments have violated their constitutions, though it will take a while for that to be widely established by constitutional courts (several cases been lost already though by governments, such as in Germany and Pennsylvania).
In short, I think the Swedes are reluctant poster-children for the Covistance. Their policies are not as sensible as those of the Tanzanians or South Dacotans, but they are a shining example to the rest of Europe anyway.