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Coronavirus: Sweden asked people to stay apart rather than lock down

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  • Sweden is sticking with its unusual coronavirus strategy, relying on people taking responsibility and following guidelines instead of implementing lockdown measures like most other countries with the virus have done.
  • There’s only a handful of restrictions in place, like bans on gatherings of more than 50 people, while shops, restaurants, bars, and schools remain open.
  • The government has defended its strategy and says that people are following its advice, while statistics show that many people are taking social distancing steps like avoiding public transport.
  • The parliament is also moving to give the government the powers to quickly introduce more restrictions if needed, though the government has indicated it does not yet have any plans to use them.
  • But the country has seen over 790 deaths and some experts have expressed alarm, and the World Health Organization is calling on Sweden to urgently take more action.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Sweden’s government is continuing its unusual coronavirus strategy of refusing to implement a lockdown, saying that people in the country are doing a good enough job of staying apart even as places like bars and restaurants remain open.

The country acted in defiance of much of the rest of the world by not introducing lockdown measures that would force people to stay apart.

Its actions also went against almost all of the rest of Europe, where the worst-hit countries have put extreme restrictions on the reasons that people can leave their homes and most other countries have closed bars and restaurants and put limits on gatherings of people.

Sweden’s decision also contrasts hugely with neighbouring Denmark, which put restrictions in place even before the country saw its first death, and is now starting to slowly lift restrictions after seeing no mass outbreak of cases.

Sweden’s strategy, which relies on individuals’ sense of responsibility instead of introducing new laws, has not stopped the coronavirus coming to the country: As of Friday morning, the country of 10 million people had 9,141 cases and 793 deaths.

Sweden coronavirus

Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist visits the site of a new field hospital for COVID-19 patients the military is building in Stockholm on March 27, 2020.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images


And deaths are spiking: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were the three days with the highest death toll so far, peaking at 114 deaths.

Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister, described Sweden’s approach on Wednesday as “No lockdown and we rely very much on people taking responsibility themselves,” CNN reported.

Here’s what the approach consists of:

  • Bars, restaurants, and malls are open. 
  • Schools are still open, with parents required to keep sending their children.
  • People are urged not to undertake non-essential travel, to work from home if they can, to stay home if they feel unwell, to keep distance from others in public, and to regularly wash their hands.
  • People aged over 70 or in a high-risk group are urged to stay home.
  • The only restrictions are that gatherings of more than 50 people are banned, bars and restaurants can only serve customers that are seated to reduce crowding, and people cannot visit places like nursing homes.

Experts say that Sweden’s response may be aided by the fact that people in Sweden have a high level of trust in their government and are likely to follow its guidance and the fact that already a high proportion of the country works from home.

But critics fear that the strategy could have a similar outcome to the that had been feared with the UK’s original plan for dealing with the virus — the “herd immunity” plan that recommended the virus should move through most of the population that was abandoned when modeling showed it would have resulted in up to 250,000 deaths.

And on April 4, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven warned that the country’s death toll would eventually reach the “thousands.”

stefan lofven

Prime Minister of Stefan Lofven.

Dan Kitwood/Getty


He said the coronavirus had spread slower in Sweden than in many other countries, but that did not mean it could avoid its worst effects.

“We have chosen a strategy of trying to flatten the curve and not get too dramatic a process because then the healthcare system probably will not cope,” he told Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper, according to The Guardian.

“But it also means that we will have more seriously ill people who need intensive care. We will have significantly more deaths. We will count the dead in thousands.”

The government says people are obeying guidance well enough that it doesn’t need new restrictions — for now

Still, the government has not introduced any immediate measures to force the population further apart.

Sweden’s parliament is moving to give the government more powers so that it can enact new rules, like closing restaurants or schools, quickly. But Lena Hallengren, Sweden’s health minister, said on Wednesday that the government didn’t have any plans yet about how it might use the law.

Forbes reported that passenger numbers on public transport in Stockholm, the capital, have halved, while polls indicate half of the city’s residents are working from home. Journalists in the city have also described emptier public transport

US President Donald Trump has weighed in, comparing Sweden’s plan to the strategy the UK previously abandoned. “Sweden did that, the herd, they call it the herd. Sweden’s suffering very, very badly,” Trump said on Tuesday, CNN reported.

Sweden

People walk in the main street of the old town in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 25, 2020, as the world fights the coronavirus.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)


But Linde, the foreign minister, said on Wednesday that Trump was “factually wrong” to suggest that Sweden was using the “herd immunity” strategy. Sweden’s plan is different to the one the UK had been looking at, in that it more actively urges people to stay apart and will bring in restrictions if people do not do so.

And Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, told Expressen, a CNN affiliate, in light of Trump’s comments: “I think Sweden is doing okay.”

“It’s producing quality results the same way it’s always done. So far Swedish health care is handling this pandemic in a fantastic way.”

But still, some Swedish experts have expressed alarm and demanded justification for why Sweden was pursuing a strategy that was so out of line with other countries.

And the World Health Organization called for Sweden to take more action on Wednesday, saying that it is “imperative” that Sweden “increase measures to control spread of the virus, prepare and increase capacity of the health system to cope, ensure physical distancing and communicate the why and how of all measures to the population.”

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