Discontent rises in Sweden as coronavirus cases spike
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven urged Swedes to 'stop looking for excuses' to ignore COVID0-19 rules.
STOCKHOLM — As it becomes clear that a second wave of COVID-19 is hitting lockdown holdout Sweden hard, debate in the country has moved to a new question: Whose fault is it?
This week, blame flew in at least three directions.
Some experts blamed the government, saying its light-touch strategy was too soft and had allowed the pandemic to take hold again.
The government pushed back, saying current rules were appropriate — and were being tightened where necessary. It blamed citizens for not following the rules already in place.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Stockholm, citizens blamed their leaders, saying the current rules sent mixed messages, making them hard to follow.
“It’s complicated,” said Gudrun Richter, who runs a café in the city center. “They tell people not to go out and eat, but restaurants are allowed to stay open; they tell people not to go shopping, but the malls are still open as normal.”
Since the pandemic hit Europe in March, Sweden has been in sharp focus globally, as restriction-weary populations and leaders elsewhere have wondered if Stockholm’s rejection of lockdown — schools, businesses and borders were left open — offered a viable option.
Results have been mixed. After a calm start, death rates in Sweden rose to among the worst in Europe before falling away in the summer.
Speaking at POLITICO’s Health Care Summit on Wednesday, Sweden’s Health Minister Lena Hallengren said she was surprised by the attention her country’s pandemic management plans have received. Being unique in any particular way was never the intention, Hallengren said. Instead, policymakers had been guided by the country’s scientists.
She also sought to put to bed one myth in particular. “We never had this kind of ‘herd immunity’ in our strategy,” the minister said, adding that although there was no lockdown, “we did manage to change … our everyday life radically.”
In July, Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said that Sweden’s approach had been as effective as a lockdown, and that allowing a slow spread of disease likely meant immunity in Sweden would be higher than elsewhere.
Sweden should therefore ride out a second wave better than nearby Finland and Norway, which dodged the first wave, he argued.
With such immunity now elusive, and Finland in particular seeing only a very limited rise in cases now, that argument has faded.
The 14-day cumulative number of cases of COVID-19 in Sweden roughly doubled to 557 per 100,000 people on November 17 from 272 on November 3.
Hospitalizations are rising sharply, and this week intensive care nurses at two of the Stockholm region’s hospitals were moved back to the same 12-hour shifts they worked during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring.
“It’s like a nightmare which is returning,” intensive care nurse Katja Fogelberg told Swedish public service radio.
People working in the health care sector “are more tired this time,” Hallengren said Wednesday.
The concern now is that the Nordic country could be on the same trajectory as the likes of the Czech Republic, Austria and Luxembourg, which are currently seeing a 14-day cumulative number of cases of over 1,000 per 100,000 people.
On Monday, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven urged Swedes to “stop looking for excuses” to ignore the rules.
He said that from November 24, public gatherings would be limited to eight people in the latest in a series of tougher measures rolled out to reduce contact between citizens.
This week in the city there were many signs that the guidelines were being flouted
Group sports for people over the age of 15 are banned, but on Sunday, semi-organized games of football involving more than a dozen adult players could be seen taking place on public pitches such as at Blackeberg on the western outskirts.
In Stockholm city center on Wednesday, restaurants, cafés and gyms were still all open and being widely used. Behind the plate glass window of a municipal building, a group of public sector workers were sitting together on sofas talking, while colleagues played table tennis nearby.
‘Do your duty’
This is not the response Löfven and Tegnell are looking for, and they say it risks undermining the whole Swedish strategy.
“Do your duty and take your responsibility,” Löfven said on Monday. “Don’t go to the gym, don’t go to the library, don’t have parties; postpone it all,” he said.
Some experts say this kind of appeal is not enough and the government should have acted more decisively.
In a recent opinion piece, 26 researchers and doctors listed rules that should be tightened. They said that people who live with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 should be forced to quarantine for longer than the current seven days and that this should include children.
They said masks should also be required in public spaces, which they currently are not.
Opposition lawmakers have swung behind this line, with the leader of the Moderate Party, Ulf Kristersson, on Wednesday demanding that Löfven explain Sweden’s exceptionalism on face masks.
That call brought the Moderates in line with the far right Sweden Democrats, whose leader Jimmie Åkesson has called for Tegnell to be replaced.
From behind her counter in central Stockholm, mask-free café worker Richter served mask-free customers.
Despite the bleak outlook, she said she still hoped that Sweden’s strategy would be enough to keep a lid on the pandemic until a vaccine arrives. “I don’t normally like injections, but this one I’m looking forward to,” she said.
Sarah Wheaton and Carlo Martuscelli contributed to this article.
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