Across international media, Sweden’s approach to COVID-19 has become a hot topic. Once heralded as a role model for how to build a Great Society, Sweden has now become a role model of how to keep a (great?) society open even as a pandemic ravages the world.
As a Swedish conservative, it has been both amusing and disturbing to see how in particular certain alt-right elements who, for years, have promoted the idea of Sweden as a country in the midst of a civil war, suddenly turn and point to us as an example to be followed.
On the surface, their case, however, does look pretty good: Sweden has not enforced any strict lockdown measures other than closing the high schools and banning gatherings of more than 50 people. Yet, COVID-19 has not turned into the kind of apocalyptic plague certain doomsayers said it would if lockdown measures were not enforced. Thus, they infer, the lockdowns introduced in the US and many other countries are unnecessary, perhaps even counterproductive.
Unfortunately, and I say that as a patriotic Swede who wants nothing but the best for his country, this is wishful thinking. Several factors have limited the spread of COVID-19 in Sweden, none of which have to do with government policy:
First of all, Sweden has a low population density, in fact, the 4th lowest in Europe. This is a natural barrier against virus transmission. Comparing Sweden’s cases with those of countries like Italy and the UK, which have around nine and 12 times as many inhabitants per square mile respectively, is simply not fair.
When you look at densely populated regions in Sweden, such as Stockholm county, the picture changes, as of the 21st of April, Stockholm county had 420 deaths per one million in population. Total deaths have increased by around 20 percent nationwide since then, so it seems reasonable to assume the number is about 500 today. This would put Stockholm in line with Connecticut, the third worst-hit state (per capita) in the US, and clearly ahead of the UK which has suffered just over 300 deaths/one million inhabitants, even though the UK’s national population density is only 25 percent lower than that of Stockholm county.
Secondly, Sweden’s culture already incorporates a lot of social distancing. Swedes generally don’t like close physical interaction with other people, and especially not strangers. There’s a joke going around that when authorities announced the six-feet apart social distancing guideline, Swedes universally responded with, “Do we really have to stand so close?”. There’s a reason why memes like these, these and these exist. It’s a stereotype with more than a kernel of truth to it.
In the same way that countries, where the pre-Corona culture had encouraged or at least normalized the wearing of face masks, have fared better than countries with facial nudist cultures, countries whose cultures already encouraged some degree of social distancing have fared better than countries where people kiss strangers on the cheek (such as Italy and Spain – two of the worst-hit countries in Europe).
Another, darker part of the story is Sweden’s cultural indifference (some would even say hostility) towards the elderly. Whereas in other countries such as the US, it is relatively common for aging parents to move in with their children; in Sweden, that very concept is considered absurd and unthinkable.
Polls have shown that no European country is as hostile to the idea of adult children having responsibility for their parents as us Swedes. Only 4 % would like their parents to move in with them once they can no longer live independently, and unlike in the US and many other countries, no tax deductions exist to incentivize this. Many adults hardly bother to stay in touch and check up on their parents.
What does this have to do with the pandemic? Well, quite frankly, a lot. While I, of course, cannot condone my country’s indifference towards our elderly population, it cannot be denied that a side-effect of our elderly already being socially isolated is that fewer of them will contract and subsequently die from the virus. You can’t catch COVID-19 from your children if you never get to see them in the first place. In countries where multigenerational households are normal (again, such as Italy and Spain), it’s harder to protect the elderly.
Then, given these cultural and geographic differences, how should we evaluate Sweden’s response to the pandemic? The answer is quite simple: By comparing us to our Scandinavian neighbors, who are culturally and geographically similar, and who have all enacted stronger lockdown measures than we have.
As of this writing, Sweden has 217 deaths per one million inhabitants. How does this number compare to that of our neighbors? Quite badly, as it turns out. Denmark, despite having five times our population density, has only one third as many deaths (73 per 1 million inhabitants).
It gets worse. The equivalent number for Norway is 37, similar to our brothers in Finland (34) and Iceland (29).
As a side note, I believe the number of deaths is a more reliable measure than the number of registered cases, as the number of cases largely depends on how many have been tested. That said, going by the number of cases does not change the story, except for Iceland, which has had more cases per capita than any of the other Scandinavian countries.
In conclusion, while Sweden, as discussed, has several cultural and demographic factors that act in our favor as we struggle through this pandemic, there is no reason to believe we would not be doing better had we also enacted lockdown measures.
Then why has our government not changed course? There are many theories, but personally, I believe that the main reason is that the government committed itself early to a non-lockdown response, and now simply cannot afford to change course. This must be seen in context: The Social Democrats, Sweden’s main governing party, have had to back down and admit they got it wrong in many areas in just the past five years (in particular re: immigration and crime policy). With each failure, their poll numbers have fallen.
Now the Social Democrats are enjoying a rare boost in their poll numbers as Swedes rally around their government in the face of this crisis. Sheer political risk aversion would dictate that the government not “fix” their pandemic response since the voters clearly do not think it is broken. But more importantly, were the Social Democrats to back down and once again admit that their policy response to a major crisis was wrong, their image might be forever destroyed.
In 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, our Prime Minister Stefan Löfven famously admitted, “We have been naive” a week after his government announced new border controls and restrictions on immigration. In the next election in 2018, the Social Democrats received their lowest share of the vote since the introduction of universal suffrage. Still, they managed to hold onto power by entering a coalition with two former opposition parties.
A common saying in Sweden states that the Social Democratic Party is a party whose ideology is based on two political ideas: To gain power and to keep it. As the Social Democrats now readily sacrifice the elderly and weak whom the party once swore to defend, this saying has once again sadly been proven true.
Above all else, the Social Democrats aim to stay in power, and they know that changing course at this stage would be detrimental to that goal. In handling this pandemic, our Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has a lot of similarities with your President Donald Trump – the ultimate goal for both of them is not to minimize death or suffering, but rather to win re-election. Maybe after the pandemic, they can meet up and exchange notes? Hopefully, they will both be out of office by then.