Comment: Second wave in Sweden cast doubts on lax response

Its ‘trust-based’ approach to social distancing has it leading its neighbors in per-capita deaths.

By Lionel Laurent / Bloomberg Opinion

Every country has at one point dared to believe they’ve figured out how to beat the coronavirus that causes covid-19, until reality sets in.

The United Kingdom’s misguided flirtation with a hands-off “herd immunity” strategy in March led quickly to a U-turn and tough restrictions. France and Spain promised they’d never repeat the draconian lockdowns they imposed early on; only to break their vow when test-and-trace systems failed to keep pace with summer vacation contagion. Israelis, who after a first lockdown were told to enjoy life and “have a beer,” are now facing a third one. Donald Trump recently claimed he’d ended the pandemic (he hadn’t).

Now, it’s Sweden’s turn. After a summer lull, the Scandinavian country famous for its voluntary “trust-based” approach to social distancing is getting battered by a winter wave of the coronavirus. Its seven-day average of daily cases and deaths per capita is currently outpacing the U.K., France and Spain, and isn’t far off the U.S. tallies. While Sweden’s total deaths of 7,514 are on a per-capita basis lower than those countries, they far outstrip its Nordic neighbors at five times Denmark’s rate, nine times Finland’s and 10 times Norway’s.

The aura of calm that Swedes have projected is fading as a result. With intensive-care beds in Stockholm almost full, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven gave a recent gloomy television address — a historically rare occurrence — imploring citizens to follow tough new restrictions to alleviate overstretched hospitals and save Christmas. Public gatherings are capped at eight people; schools have been shut, some for the first time; alcohol sales are banned after 10 p.m. While much is still recommendation rather than rule, Sweden’s government has proposed a law that would give it the power to close stores in response to a worsening pandemic.

This doesn’t come close to the widespread business closures seen elsewhere or the bureaucratic form-filling of France’s lockdowns. But it’s a sign that whatever was working in Sweden isn’t doing the trick anymore. Though the country suffered a high death rate during the first wave, there was optimism it was an upfront cost in return for less economic pain and higher immunity levels; all while respecting, and even reinforcing, a fabric of social trust. Sweden’s economy at the end of September was only 2.2 percent smaller than it was in 2019, according to HSBC. But the new wave is a nasty development.

It’s tempting to gloat over Sweden’s failures and the attitude of its top epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, who is by turns curiously inflexible (he opposes face masks) and unpredictable (his U-turns on guidelines for children). But maybe Sweden is simply falling into the norm for this public health crisis. After all, Germany, a bright spot of Europe earlier this year, is going through a similar reversal of fortunes. Its daily deaths are hitting their highest levels since the start of the pandemic, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel to call on Germans to rein in Christmas celebrations in an emotional speech. Switzerland, too, is being hit harder this time around.

The reality is that all countries have had to learn from mistakes. Data estimating the strictness of covid-19 restrictions around the world suggest countries like Italy and France have softened their lockdown approach since April, keeping schools open for example. Giuliano di Baldassarre, a professor of crisis management at Uppsala University, reckons the lessons have gone both ways: Sweden has taught other countries to consider more humane and more stable restrictions, but it has also been taught that a lack of legal or regulatory intervention can become a problem.

As countries from the U.K. to Croatia tighten restrictions ahead of the holidays, the ideal of a European “model” for keeping the virus in check is looking increasingly unattainable; and that includes the Swedish model, the focus of such fascination earlier this year. It would have been hard to replicate the Scandinavian country’s natural advantages, such as a high rate of remote work and single-occupant households, elsewhere. Now it seems the country’s popular commitment to social distancing is suffering from fatigue, as elsewhere. Until vaccines get rolled out at scale, the danger for people everywhere will be imagining they’ve got this virus beaten.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France.

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