Coronavirus OPINION: Are Swedes naive or the only adults in the room?

Coronavirus OPINION: Are Swedes naive or the only adults in the room?
People enjoying the sun in Nacka, Stockholm, on April 8th. Photo: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki
There is much to love about the way Swedes do things, and much that is aggravating, writes British copywriter Paul Jackson.

That Sweden has taken a different approach to managing the coronavirus has attracted unwonted international media attention. This has led to questions from family and friends in the UK who wonder what is going on. Is everything really business as usual?

As you might have read, things are kind of normal in Sweden. But only kind of. Restaurants and cafes are open, but largely empty. Parks are full of children and parents. And there have never been so many people out for walks. But we keep our distance. There is a sense of uneasiness beneath the surface.

A part of this unease is the Big Question bothering many here: is the seemingly lax Swedish approach the right one?


People chatting and drinking at a restaurant in Stockholm on April 8th. Photo: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

Naive, complacent and arrogant

Even though I've lived in Sweden for over 30 years, I still have half a foot in the UK where I grew up and where I still follow the news on a daily basis. When I look at how the crisis is being handled here with British eyes, I see naivety, complacency and even arrogance. When I look with Swedish eyes, I see a measured, mature response.

There is much to love about the way Swedes do things, and much that is aggravating. One characteristic I've noticed again and again is their, for want of a better word, adultness.

You see it in all kinds of ways, from not bothering celebrities on the streets of Stockholm for a selfie, to giving children the space to be children.

Having ice in your stomach

So what is the “Swedish model” for managing the coronavirus? In a sombre address to the nation, the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, spoke about self-sacrifice and responsibility.

Instead of draconian laws, the authorities expect citizens to behave in a considerate way. So, for example, if you have any symptoms, even a mild cough or sore throat, you are expected to stay at home. You should try to avoid public-transport during the rush-hour. If you can work from home, do so.

When I see the measures being taken in country after country around the world, the Swedish reaction can feel maddeningly inadequate. However, when I actually dig beneath the headlines, it can feel that, maybe, just maybe, the Swedish response is the right one. Time will tell.

And the Swedes are taking the long view. In a recent in-depth interview, the head of the Public Health Agency of Sweden, Johan Carlson, says they will know in four or five years time if their actions have been the right ones. There's a Swedish expression about the importance of keeping a cool head: you need to have ice in your stomach.


A near-empty Drottninggatan on March 28th, normally one of the busiest streets in Stockholm. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

No political point scoring

There are two things that helped me understand the Swedish reaction better. One, the agency is a newish umbrella organization that merged the institute for infectious diseases with that for public health. Two, Sweden has a long tradition of separating civic authority from political power.

Asked about the Danish government's closing of their borders (and most dramatically The Bridge connecting the two countries), Carlson answered that it was a political decision that makes no difference epidemiologically. In other words, it was political gesturing. (As a footnote, whereas in the UK it is Downing Street holding daily press conferences, in Sweden it is the Public Health Agency.)

As in many countries, politics in Sweden is usually a tiresome round of point scoring. But not now. Despite the fragility of the present coalition, the other parties are showing a fairy-tale level of unanimity. The opposition could easily win a few points by comparing the number of deaths in Sweden to other Nordic countries – the differences are significant – but they don't.

Elitist wagon-circling?

Is this wagon-circling of the political elite? Probably not when you take into account the recent disruptive rise of the populist Sweden Democrats to the top of the pile.

Could it be that politicians here are beginning to behave – admittedly this is a bit of a stretch – like adults? Could it be that they (and even the populists) are putting their trust in the science of the experts?

The agency's chief epidemiologist, and de facto spokesperson, Anders Tegnell, dresses like an old-fashioned PE teacher. He comes over as dry and aloof, and has been subjected to much criticism, plus virulent online animosity. I have found myself hating the man. Doesn't he know what's happening in the rest of the world? Why isn't special snowflake Sweden following the WHO guidelines like the other 200 plus countries on this planet?

Ice in the stomach or ice in the veins

When I stop venting and actually read an article or two, I learn that the agency's members have quite a track-record. Carlson, for example, wrote his PhD about malaria following field-studies in several African countries. He has worked for the EU in Luxembourg, and has managed every crisis from HIV and anthrax to Sars and swine influenza. Carlson has now been at the helm of the public health agency for over ten years.

Asked about the policy of trusting people to act responsibly, he gives the example of vaccinations. Even though there are no rules or regulations for parents, Sweden has table-topping results in the battle against infectious diseases.

The agency can feel indifferent, even callous, but ice in the stomach is not the same as ice in the veins. As mentioned above, it is an umbrella organization with a wide remit.


The Public Health Agency's Anders Tegnell, left, and Johan Carlson. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Why schools are still open

Although universities and sixth-form colleges have closed their physical doors, primary and junior schools have been kept open. Why? Because, says Carlson, many children do not have it easy at home. Completing compulsory school is the most important factor in determining their future health.

So, in the middle of the worst pandemic in almost 100 years, the head of the much-maligned agency is taking into consideration the academic achievements, employment possibilities and lifetime outcomes of today's school children.

Slacker parenting

When my offspring were young, relations in England commented on my slacker parenting. This came as a surprise: although my kids were encouraged to be seen and heard, I always knew what they were up to. It wasn't laxness, but hands-off control. If they were in any danger of hurting themselves or others, I was there.

Is it a comparable situation in Sweden today? There are signs that the authorities are getting ready to shut things down. And when they do, they will do it quickly. They are not being lax but, informed by a wide range of concerns, they are doing what they think is best.

We'll see if they are right in five years' time. Or when today's school kids are pensioners.

Meanwhile, I'll be keeping my socially-distanced fingers firmly crossed during the coming weeks.

This opinion piece was submitted by Paul Jackson. Paul is a Stockholm-based copywriter who currently works as an editor when he is not working as a teacher.


Member comments

  1. Ultimately the Swedes have the same aim as everyone else. Keep things to a point that the health service can treat everyone. They haven’t had to lockdown yet and may not have to as its working with the ICU facilities not at capacity. There is also clearly a feeling that hard lockdown just delays the inevitable, and at a bigger price…….just look at the contortions in the UK now over how to end it.

  2. Agreed. When I speak to friends in the UK, Canada and US, I feel a sense of indignation. How dare we not lock down? The reality is the picture is just not clear enough yet, and there does seem to be some argument that one size shoe does not fit all cultures / country circumstances. I’m happy with things here so far, and the numbers aren’t as bad as we see in some places. I hope in retrospect the world will see Sweden’s response as the most level headed.

  3. I am exhausted with the “Swedish way is the righ way garbage”, even Swedes get it wrong sometimes (like legal child porn in the 1970s). Sweden has more deaths per 10,000 people than Germany, 1333 Swedish souls, to date, have died unnecessarily. Politics is what is needed in a crisis, not some dry bloated scientist who looks at people as nothing more than large bags of cells.
    A society should be judged on how it treats it’s old and sick. By this measure, Sweden has failed.
    Herd immunity needs about 60-90% infection, no one even knows how long, if at all, we are immune for with covid-19. To reach that high herd immunity, thousands upon thousands of people have to either die or become deathly sick, do you really want to take that gamble?
    I was in the process of leaving this place when the virus hit. Now I am stuck in a wicked human experiment to which I have in no way consented.
    Ask yourself, as you look around at all the people dying, some not even being taken to hospital, nursing staff being denied testing and PPE, doctors falling ill. Is this a place where I want to grow old? My answer is, hell no! But hey, if you want herd immunity, then go out get infected, be my guest.

  4. the statistics are wrong when you do not keep any relevant track of cases. The situation in Sweden is this. People younger than 60yrs old with Corona are not accepted by the hospitals, some go back home and die and no record is being kept that they have or have passed the disease.
    Because of this, we have such a low number of deaths.

    Take a look to understand who handled the situation in an adult way, and provide feedback below. Are people of any of these countries not loving their children and keep them home? https://www.economist.com/news/2020/03/11/the-economists-coverage-of-the-coronavirus

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