Sweden has received considerable media scrutiny in recent days. According to figures published on Tuesday, it now has the highest coronavirus-per-capita death rate in the world, with an average of 6.08 deaths per million inhabitants a day on a rolling seven-day average between 13 and 20 May. As of 22 May, Sweden has had 32,172 confirmed cases and 3,871 deaths. These figures are lower than those of Italy or the UK. But they are higher than those of Portugal and Greece, two countries with a similar size of population to Sweden. The figures are also much higher than Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, with Denmark at 11,182 cases and 561 deaths, Norway at 8,309 and 235, and Finland at 6,537 and 306.
International observers and critics within Sweden blame these depressing figures on its controversial Covid-19 strategy. Unlike the rest of Europe, or what is often cited as the exemplar nation of South Korea, Sweden has not imposed any lockdowns nor carried out mass testing. Its policy has been to slow the spread of the virus by exhorting its citizens to practise voluntary social distancing.
Some restrictions have been enforced, such as a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, and a stipulation that drinks can only be served on seated tables as opposed to bars. Everyday life in Sweden is not the same as before. There are fewer people in shopping centres and public transport. Working from home has become the new normal for those who can. But people continue to socialise outdoors freely, while primary schools, hairdressers and shopping centres remain open.
But despite the high number of deaths, about 70% of Swedes support their government’s approach. In fact, there has not been much public debate or organised opposition to the strategy. The deaths have indeed shocked many Swedes, especially the disproportionately high number of deaths among those over 70 in care homes and those from working-class, immigrant backgrounds. The debates, however, seem to be taking a more socioeconomic angle. In other words, the reasons for these deaths are being blamed on structural, economic, and social deficiencies – but not on the strategy itself.
Why is this so? One explanation that has been aired frequently points to the high degree of trust between government agencies and citizens. The argument is that the level of government transparency and the state’s service-mindedness has created an environment where the people trust their government and experts.
Whereas this might explain the lack of opposition, it is far from exhaustive. For example, Norway, Denmark and Finland are also known as high-trust societies. But all three have imposed far more restrictive measures, ranging from lockdowns to declaring a national emergency.
Second, the fact that some of the people most affected by the high death rate are from the poorest immigrant groups, such as the Somali community, whose voice is not always well represented in the media, goes against this image of a universally trusting and transparent society.
Perhaps another explanation is that Sweden has a very different way of perceiving the current crisis. Instead of seeing it as a national emergency or a fight against an “invisible enemy”, there seems to be a tendency to regard coronavirus just as a serious public health problem. It is viewed as something that requires the careful observance of rules set out by health experts, rather than an existential problem that calls for the state to suspend civil liberties for the sake of national security. Indeed, whenever a non-scientific expert such as me criticises the Swedish strategy, the response has often been that I am not an expert.
This is where Sweden is unique, something that may be attributable to its history. The country has not experienced a national emergency or crisis for more than 100 years. Since around the Swedish general strike of 1909, it has not seen any profound social conflicts, for example the miners’ strike in Britain, or a civil war, as in Spain or Finland. Any foreigner who has lived in Sweden will know how conflict-adverse Swedish people seem to be. Furthermore, Sweden has not engaged in any armed disputes since the 1810s. This is in contrast to Denmark and Norway, which were occupied by Germany in the second world war, and Finland, invaded by the USSR in the same period. A rallying cry of unity in the face of national adversity isn’t part of the collective cultural fabric in Sweden.
This lack of experience with handling national crises goes some way to explaining why there is a technocratic and dispassionate outlook to Covid-19, as opposed to a sense of urgency. It is also why the public health agency in Sweden seems to have few qualms about “herd immunity”. Whereas other countries see it as a dangerous national experiment, Swedish health officials regard it more as a type of medical prescription. It might not be 100% effective and some deaths might occur, as in any medical situation. But in the long run, it could work in mitigating the negative effects of the virus, without mass social disruption.
It is for this reason that the denial by the Swedish government and health officials that it is actually pursuing “herd immunity” seem so halfhearted, a rebuttal to critical foreign press rather than its citizens. For a foreigner living in Sweden like me, it is not entirely reassuring. How long Sweden will continue with this policy is difficult to ascertain. But as long as Covid-19 is seen in this light, and it looks as if it will, a U-turn seems unlikely.
• Tae Hoon Kim is a South Korean geopolitical and economic analyst based in Stockholm, Sweden