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Without a lockdown through the crisis? The Bitter Truth About The "Swedish Model"

Political scientist Hans Bergstrom explains in the guest commentary why Sweden has only limited public life and migrants are overrepresented in the Covid-19 death rate.

Stockholm's bars and restaurants are full of people enjoying the spring sunshine. Schools and sports studios are open. The government has given advice on public health care but has imposed few sanctions. There are no official guidelines recommending the wearing of masks.

During the early part of the pandemic, the "Swedish model" was proudly celebrated by the government and most commentators. They claimed it was built on the Swedes' great confidence in their institutions and fellow citizens. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven took the opportunity to appeal to the self-discipline of his compatriots and to ask them to act responsibly even without orders from the authorities. According to the World Values ​​Survey, Swedes tend to have a unique combination: they trust their public institutions, but at the same time cultivate extreme individualism. As the sociologist Lars Tragårdh put it, every Swede carries his own policeman on his shoulder.

But it is not that the government has deliberately designed a model against the pandemic that is based on the people's sense of civic responsibility. Instead, the measures were drafted by bureaucrats and then defended afterwards as an expression of Swedish virtues.

Government gave up responsibility ...

In practice, the main task of dealing with the pandemic rested on a single man: the state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the National Public Health Institute. Tegnell responded to the crisis with his own strong beliefs about the virus: first he believed it would not spread across China, and then that it would be enough to track individual cases imported from abroad. For example, the thousands of families who returned from skiing in the Italian Alps at the end of February were strongly advised to return to work and school if they had no visible symptoms - even if members of their own family had already become infected. Tegnell argued that there was no evidence of intra-community transmission in Sweden and that no general restrictions were required. The Swedish ski resorts remained open to travelers and party guests from Stockholm. Between the lines, he suggested that without draconian measures to prevent the spread of the virus, Sweden could achieve herd immunity over time. This strategy would be more sustainable for society.

Meanwhile, the government remained passive. This is partly due to a unique characteristic of the country's political system: a strong separation of powers between the central government ministries and the independent authorities. And in the "fog of war" it was also practical for Löfven to let Tegnell's authority take over responsibility. That they so obviously trusted their own actions enabled the government to surrender responsibility during the weeks of uncertainty. In addition, Löfven probably wanted to show his trust in science and facts and - unlike US President Donald Trump - avoid questioning his experts. In contrast, the measures taken by the state epidemiologist were heavily criticized by independent experts: 22 of the most prominent professors of infectious diseases and epidemiology published a comment in Dagens Nyheter, in which they asked Tegnell to resign and appealed to the government to change their course of action.

... and is now lagging behind

When the virus had spread widespread by mid-March, Löfven was forced to become more active. Since then, the government has been following developments. As of March 29, it banned public gatherings with more than 50 people (previously 500) and imposed sanctions against violations. As of April 1, she ended visits to nursing homes after the virus had already infected half of Stockholm's senior citizen facilities.

The Swedish approach has been proven wrong for at least three reasons: however virtuous the Swedes are, there are free riders in every society, and when it comes to a highly contagious disease it doesn't take many of them to wreak enormous harm. In addition, authorities were only gradually becoming aware of the possibility of asymptomatic contagion - and that infected people could be most contagious before they develop symptoms. Third, the composition of the Swedish population structure has changed.

Housing density in suburbs

After years of extremely high immigration from Africa and the Middle East, 25 percent of the Swedish population - 2.6 million out of a total population of 10.2 million - are of non-Swedish origin. In the Stockholm region this percentage is even higher. Immigrants from Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are heavily overrepresented among the Covid 19 deaths. This was partly attributed to a lack of information in the immigrant languages. But a more important factor seems to be the density of housing in some immigrant suburbs, compounded by the closer physical proximity between generations.

It is still too early to fully assess the consequences of the "Swedish model". The Covid-19 death rate in Sweden is nine times higher than in Finland, almost five times higher than in Norway and more than twice as high as in Denmark. In part, these numbers could be due to Sweden's much larger migrant population, but the blatant differences to its Nordic neighbors are still striking. Denmark, Norway and Finland imposed strict lockdown measures early on and demonstrated strong political leadership.

Now that Covid-19 is raging in nursing homes and other facilities, the government has had to back down. Others flirting with the "Swedish model" need to know that one of its defining characteristics is higher casualty rates. (Hans Bergstrom, Translation: Harald Eckhoff, Copyright: Project Syndicate, April 26, 2020)

Hans Bergstrom is Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering and was editor of the daily newspaper "Dagens Nyheter".

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