OPINION: I believe Sweden will regret its approach to Covid in schools

Sweden's Covid-19 strategy for schools is complex, but nonchalant attitudes and a lack of systematic protection for schoolchildren can only be described as irresponsible, argues Lisa Bjurwald in this opinion piece.

OPINION: I believe Sweden will regret its approach to Covid in schools
File photo of a schoolchild in Sweden. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

In the US, liberal news media are reporting with horror that several Republican-led states will penalise schools that require masks. This despite the number of infected children soaring, not least in Republican states such as Florida and Texas, and despite leading public health experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending universal indoor masking in schools this year.

In Swedish schools, you’d be hard-pressed to find any measures at all, if you don’t count a few bottles of sanitiser here and there and (at least in some schools, and at least in the first months of the pandemic) extra spacious seating in the dining halls. Masks have never been mandatory or even socially accepted herecertainly not in the classrooms. Yet this school year, närundervisning (in-school teaching, or literally “close teaching”) will replace distance learning.

Instructions to schools from the Public Health Agency of Sweden are meek and, just as the Swedish pandemic strategy as a whole, based on recommendations”, advice”, “suggestions” and the like, rather than mandatory rules. If possible, work in smaller groups [than usual],” and so on.

On August 12th, the Public Health Agency and The Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket) announced that the possibility of preventive distance learning has been removed. This in the face of renewed spread and mutated strains. As opposed to neighbouring countries Finland and Denmark, Sweden hasn’t lowered the recommended vaccine age to include children, instead sticking with 16 years of age (thus excluding the entire elementary school system).

To some parents, foreign and Swedish-born alike, this idea of business as usual is a relief. Not that they don’t care about their children’s well-being, but rather that the unique Swedish approach to Covid-19 has allowed for young school-aged children to live normal lives during a potentially frightening global crisis.

Many of us who have friends and family abroad know what a toll regular school closings and futile attempts at homeschooling have taken on parents and pupils alike. I have close friends in London who were all nearly having a nervous breakdown at different times during the past year, their young, hyper-energetic broods literally climbing the walls” (as we say in Sweden) out of frustration.

On the other side of these walls, mums and dads were trying and failing to have serious job conversations over Skype. It would have been funny for a week or two, a story to tell the grandchildren, but months on end, with no end in sight? No wonder European psychiatric helplines have nearly crashed from the number of desperate callers.

But there’s also a group of Sweden-based parents increasingly worried about the country’s lax attitude towards Covid-19, not least in the classrooms. As the new Delta variant of the virus is dominating the spread, and infection rates are increasing in major cities like Stockholm, anxiety is brewing over the return to schools this week.


The message from the Swedish government and Public Health Agency has consistently been that kids don’t get sick from the coronavirus. But reports of Long Covid in children tell a different story. While children fortunately end up in hospital emergency units very rarely, they can develop the same debilitating post-Covid symptoms as adults, including extreme tiredness, recurring fever spells, and frightening cognitive symptoms like brain fog” with difficulties focusing.

No one knows how long Long Covid lasts. Tens of thousands of those infected in the spring of 2020 around the globe are still suffering from the after-effects. The WHO has acknowledged post-Covid as a global health concern. Networks and organisations for the affected have been set up, clinical research initiated. But the Swedish response has been gruellingly slow, particularly in comparison with countries such as the United Kingdom, where a heap of special post-Covid clinics has been set up to care for the ill.

A recent report from the Swedish Children’s Ombudsman studied the consequences of Covid-19 on children’s rights and found that a surprising number of Swedish children are suffering from severe, life-altering post-Covid symptoms. I write in-depth in Swedish about the report here.

The fact that children can be negatively affected physically by the virus puts the Swedish pandemic school strategy – or lack thereof – in a different light.

A measured, fact-based response is preferable to a gut reaction driven by fear and/or populism, as seen across the world since the outbreak early last year. If children could neither get infected nor spread the potentially deadly disease, schools could pretty much be exempt from preventive measures.

But now, a year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic, science tells us differently. Children can both spread the virus to vulnerable family members – especially with the sneakier Delta variant – and suffer severe post-Covid symptoms themselves, even if the infection itself was mild.

With this knowledge in mind, the lack of protection for our youngest citizens and the nonchalant attitudes from those in power cannot be described as anything else but irresponsible. I believe that this will be a major issue of regret and reckoning for Sweden in the post-pandemic years.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here.

Member comments

  1. Cobbler, stick to your trade.
    Sweden is one of the few countries not overreacting. The only scientific fact they do not follow is using an experimental vaccine product on adolescents, whose immune system still evolves. Disclaimer: i am pro vax.

  2. Stop your fear propaganda that mostly has to rely one words like “could”, “would” and “maybe”.
    The real damage to the well-being of children can be observed clearly in other lockdown and vaccination-enthusiastic countries.
    Sweden is doing absolutely right!
    Help to keep our children healthy – not just with respect to “maybe” COVID but also to all other dimensions of physical and mental health.

    1. I fully agree and also take a look at the ema register. Per end of June we have in 6 month more than 160000 cases of serious vaccination effects, i.e that are those causing hospitalisation and remaining damages and over 20000 deaths in the EU. I wouldn’ call that a solution to the problem. While it is obvious by simply valueing the figures that young people and espially children don’t have a problem and please stop the nonsense with so called ling covid.

  3. I am proVAX and I disrespect Tegnell. His initial plan of spreading the virus to distribute the disease was meaningful in a scenario where no vaccine would have been on the horizon for the next, say, 5 years. We had a vaccine in less than a year. Tegnell did absolutley nothing to mitigate the spread in public spaces (transport, supermarkets …) where the simple use of a surgical mask could reduce the spread, is adopted almost everywhere in Europe, and is recommended by WHO. Folkhälsomyndigheten does not even contemplate the use of this simple “device”. Even traveling by plane is a funny experience: signs everywhere to wear masks, and at least 30% of the people wearing no masks at the terminals, and even inside the plane, not even the stewards. Why? because nobody explained that a mask does not save your ass, it protects the others.I found this really … disappointing for a country that praises itself as a champion of social consideration, in this case towards the one who cannot vaccinate. I read on this line that last winter a kid in Stockholm was sent home because he was wearing a mask at school. This is a blatant violation of his individual liberty: was he hurting someone? no. But he was probably sending the “wrong message” to his schoolmates. Having said that Sweden, having probably 5x the number of casualties of Denmark, is not doing too bad, considering that they haven t practiced any lock-down for example: but this is possible because (A) we have a lot of space, (B) Sweden is a very beautiful country but not a tourist magnet, and I mean it.

    1. I sympathize with your argumentation but would like to point out that you operate under the assumption that the vaccines are sterilizing, i.e. wipe out the infection. The end goal of all vaccine trials was to reduce burden on the healthcare system. As such significant reduction of middle to severe covid cases was chosen as the goal. The vaccines work wonders with regard to that but do not protect from transmitting the virus. Israel, ahead of all other countries, shows it clearly to us: a variant emerges that has higher virus titer in general and equal titer in nasal swaps of vaccinated and naive population.

      To long did not read: the virus is here to stay and no vaccine will change that. Swedens strategy had not to be adapted.

  4. totally disagree with this article. I’ve seen the terrible mental health problems from kids wearing masks etc in the US. Keep it as normal for the kids as possible!!

    1. If this article had been written one year earlier, then possibly people could still reasonably believe it. However in September 2021 there is overwhelming evidence that the Swedish response, which was amongst the least authoritarian in the world, has been superior from every single vantage point.

      Israel, Australia and New Zealand implemented the exact opposite strategies and there is no metric that shows they have performed better than Sweden.

      I would like to see this author’s corporate ties. Perhaps she would be willing to share them with her audience?

      Sweden won.

  5. Also, don’t compare Sweden’s numbers only to the Nordics to make a point. Compared to the rest of Europe, Sweden has done tremendously well without much restrictions, and will be better off in the long term

  6. Lisa …I think you may well have a valid argument here. What do other readers think will happen in schools this winter? I am not optimistic that the situation is being addressed at all. What frustrates me the most is not only aren’t basic protective mensures in place in schools , but it’s as if Delta doesn’t even exist! I agree that masks all day for kids is miserable and a vaccine for over 12’s is controversial to say the least. But please Sweden let’s be proactive and accept what’s coming and do something to at least minimise the blow. Although not ideal (and I’m certainly not a fan) home school may be the only temporary solution going forward. I don’t have the answers but I think Lisa is right to question the lax attitude towards what we know will be a highly contagious virus being spread among the unvaccinated. Long covid can’t be brushed off and for any child to suffer long term would be an unfair consequence of the ’nonchalant’ attitude of those in power, and dare I say like minded parents.

    1. I understand your worries but think they have to be kept in balance with other damages.
      I live in Germany and can see the tremendous REAL physical and psychological damage to children caused by “homeschooling” (which actually was more a joke than any school!), masks in schools and alike.
      It’s not just wearing masks, it’s letting all decisions and behaviors be driven be plain FEAR about POSSIBLE/EVENTUAL effects which is the problem.
      Sweden is well adviced not to let this happen and better first see what really happens instead of over-reacting on very blurred maybes and thereby causing a lot more real harm.
      Stay calm and confident, enjoy life, relax and keept moving/exercising. This will contribute to everybodies health a lot more than masks, isolation and experimental medicine.

      1. I agree with much of your well grounded reply. We need to learn to live with covid and home schooling should only be a last resort if the situation spirals out of control – which of course I hope it doesn’t. But the wait and see approach doesn’t cut it for me. Just take a look at what’s happening in the US right now. Cases among kids are rising fast in the face of Delta and more children are ending up in hospital. The American Academy of Pediatrics said it – This is not last year’s covid…kids are going to be affected the most. To quote a recent Local article ”masks, covid jabs, tests and ventilation” this is how German children are returning to school. In Sweden we have none of that. Over reaction is damaging …under reaction is just as damaging.

  7. My UK school was Victorian and violent. I would have loved an opportunity (like Covid) to learn from home, over a computer, and could learn far more left undisturbed to read, rather than wasting time in their classrooms. Swedish schools might be more moderate, but some kids actually benefit from staying at home and not having to sit with bullies all day long.

    1. Dear Alastair,
      So sorry to hear that. I know there’s widespread bullying in Swedish schools, too (no country is spared, I presume), yet the media coverage here tends to focus on the pupils suffering from distance learning rather than a balanced reporting, which would include experiences similar to yours. Thus, valuable input! Thank you very much for commenting.
      Best, Lisa B.

  8. Have read all of your interesting comments above; thank you for taking part in the discussion! Face masks for kids are too restrictive, in my point of view. Homeschooling obviously not a long-term option. But the Delta mutation IS a cause for concern, and long covid cannot be brushed off. Certainly not an easy question, many aspects to take into consideration… Best, Lisa B.

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Why don’t Scandinavians try harder to understand each other?

At a conference in Sweden attended by Deputy Editor Becky Waterton this week, the Danish presenters were asked to switch to English for their Swedish audience. Why don't Scandinavians make more effort to understand each other, and what are they missing out on?

Why don't Scandinavians try harder to understand each other?

In September 2012, on the first day of my degree course in Scandinavian Studies, I was asked to choose which of the Scandinavian languages – Danish, Swedish or Norwegian – I wanted to specialise in.

I hadn’t completely made up my mind at this point, but was reassured that, whichever language I chose, I would be able to speak with and understand speakers of the other two languages due to pan-Scandinavian mutual intelligibility.

In the end, I chose Danish.

Yes, it’s only spoken by around six million people, but if you factor Norwegians and Swedes into the equation, as well as Swedish Finns and citizens of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Finland and the Åland Islands who learn Danish or Swedish in school, you have a group of over 20 million people who you can potentially communicate with.

It was only later that I discovered that I’d managed to choose the most unintelligible Scandinavian language, when I attempted to speak Danish with a Swede on a trip to Stockholm and was met with a blank stare.

At a recent course I attended in Stockholm with Norwegians, Danes and Swedes, the attendees – all of whom were Swedish, apart from me – happily sat through a presentation held in Norwegian, but the Danes holding presentations only got as far as uttering a single sentence before they were asked by the Swedish audience to speak English instead.

It ended with the Swedes and Norwegians speaking their native languages while the Danes spoke English, which I couldn’t help but feel was a bit unfair.

I mean, these are languages which share around 75 percent of the same vocab, many of the same expressions and essentially the same grammar. Is it really so hard to understand a Dane if they speak slowly and clearly?

Most research, as well as my own personal experience, seems to agree that the Scandinavian languages are almost mutually intelligible. Most Scandinavian speakers understand Norwegian and Swedish, and Norwegian speakers understand Danish for the most part, but Danes are often forced to speak English with Swedes in order to be understood.

I can’t help but feel that Scandinavians who don’t bother learning to at least understand their neighbouring languages are really missing out. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians have a wealth of shared cultural references, shared history and a shared language, and is it not always easier to communicate with others in their own language?

Those who speak a Scandinavian language have a fast-track to learning not just one, but two new languages, and the same goes for people learning these languages.

It only takes a little extra effort to train your ear to at least understand the other two, and since you know the general grammar and most of the vocab already, your homework can be as simple as watching Danish or Norwegian TV or regularly listening to a pan-Scandinavian podcast, like the fantastic Norsken, svensken och dansken podcast from Sveriges Radio and Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

In return, you gain the opportunity to converse with millions more people and delve into the culture of three countries – even more if you count the other countries where a large proportion of the population speak or understand a Scandinavian language – not to mention broadening your career or study options.

By the end of my Scandinavian Studies degree, my classmates and I could easily speak to and understand each other across the Scandinavian languages, no doubt due to shared courses on Scandinavian translation and encouragement to use each other as an opportunity to practice. Sure, we needed a bit of help every now and then with vocab or when trying to read something in Nynorsk, but the reward was definitely worth the effort.

Why settle for just watching TV in your Scandinavian language when you can watch fantastic programmes from the other countries, too? Why just read August Strindberg when you can also enjoy Henrik Ibsen and Hans Christian Andersen, not to mention modern Scandinavian literature, cinema and crime dramas?

To me, it feels like a cheap get-out to switch to English at the first syllable you don’t understand if you’ve put in the effort to learn one Scandinavian language, rather than powering through and asking the person speaking to talk a little slower, or a little more clearly, to make themselves understood.

It feels like Scandinavians have lost sight of the benefits to understanding their neighbours, losing out on one of the great things that unites Scandinavia and ultimately, losing part of their Scandinavian identity in the process.

I’m all for globalisation and love that Scandinavians are so good at English, but that shouldn’t make it the default in a situation where two Scandinavians can speak their native languages to each other and be understood, with just a little effort.

It also excludes large portions of Scandinavian society from talking to their neighbours, if they don’t also happen to be fluent in English as well.

Of course, as someone who dedicated multiple years of their life to learning the Scandinavian languages, I might be biased.

Join me on the dark side and maybe we can convince the native Scandinavian speakers that it’s not that hard, after all.