Sweden's coronavirus strategy is clearly different to other countries so who should people trust?

Emma Löfgren
Emma Löfgren - [email protected]
Sweden's coronavirus strategy is clearly different to other countries so who should people trust?
A sign in Stockholm, urging people to wash their hands. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

When Sweden's path for handling the coronavirus pandemic is clearly deviating from other countries, who do international residents place their trust in, asks The Local Sweden's editor Emma Löfgren.


Last week, I wrote that Sweden was becoming an outlier in how it is dealing with the new coronavirus. Now it seems the rest of the world has noticed. I think I have to go back to the refugee crisis of 2015 to find as many international hot takes about Sweden as this week.

Is Sweden not implementing stricter restrictions on its people because they are horribly naive and complacent? Is it because decisions are generally made by expert authorities, rather than political ministers? Is it because they place a high premium on individual responsibility and trust?

Are tougher rules not needed because people follow them anyway? Or are people still going out to restaurants, ski trips to the mountains, and hanging out with friends as usual, not a care in the world?

The honest answer is that there's a grain of truth in almost everything.

It's also the slightly more boring answer, because it makes it harder to talk about Sweden as this peculiar country in the north where everything is either perfect paradise or a collapsing hellhole.

There are now stricter rules in place for bars and restaurants, and public gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned. But not much else has changed, while the entire world has changed in other places.

An outdoor restaurant in Stockholm on Thursday. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Compare the Swedish guidelines to what the Danes were told by their government on Monday: "Cancel Easter lunch. Postpone family visits. Don't go sightseeing around the country." The Swedish Public Health Agency's corresponding recommendation is: "Ahead of the breaks and Easter, it is important to consider whether planned travel in Sweden is necessary to carry out."

Even the official recommendations leave a lot of room for interpretation. Should you think of them as typically bureaucratic Swedish understatements and assume that you are in fact expected to fall in line and make sensible decisions, or should you think that as long as there are no rules it's a free-for-all? 

"We can't legislate and ban everything. It's also a question of common-sense manners," said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, telling people off for not following recommendations. The translation of the last bit is not perfect. He used the word folkvett, the moral sense that every person is expected to have without being taught, and a word every Swede will instinctively recognise as something seen as a very, very bad thing not to have.

Still, it tends to be one of those emotional conjugations: I have common sense, you are careless, those people over there are pig-headed fools who go partying during a pandemic. When the recommendations are open to interpretation, how do you know when you or someone else have crossed an invisible line?


You can watch the Public Health Agency's press conferences (in Swedish) here. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Sweden's health authorities have been giving daily press conferences for weeks, their experts patiently answering questions without a hint of annoyance. Here at The Local, we have been trying to get interviews with their experts this week, without luck. We were told to come to the press conference in Stockholm in person instead. That contrasts with the official advice, which remains to work from home if you can.

It seems much of the communication is based on a time when all Swedes watched the same television channel, all read the same newspapers, spoke the same language. But not even Swedes only read Swedish news these days. And The Local's international readers get their information from many different sources: Swedish news, us, their home country, other global media. How do you know who to trust?

We don't know whose strategy will turn out to be right – maybe we will never know. There are reasons for Sweden's decisions; we have written about the debate for and against on The Local. The people making the decisions are trained epidemiologists; they may be wrong or right, but they are not experimenting.

But anyone can see that other countries are making other decisions. That much is obvious. The mixed messages are plentiful, and they seem to make people want to pick sides, dig their heels in, argue that in Sweden we have a system and it works; or no, Swedes always think they know best but they don't. 

I hear from international readers who no longer feel welcome here, because they have been told that their concern comes from not truly understanding Sweden. I also know the feeling of needing to place your trust in someone to help see us through this crisis, and the knee-jerk fear when someone else shakes that pillar. I worry that there is a growing divide between us, when our fears may be more similar than we think.

I wish this could all bring us closer instead. I wish people would stop talking down to friends and colleagues who are afraid that the wrong decisions are being made; they know just as much as you do. But equally, don't assume that people who choose to trust the authorities to make these decisions are not just as afraid as you are. 

This is unknown territory for most of us. We need each other more than ever.

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Anonymous 2020/03/28 13:28
Really appreciate this article. Has been a confusing time.<br /><br />Finding that middle path is hard some days. I trust the authorities but I also have doubts. I want to do my part. I want to keep others safe. I'm pretty sanguine most of the time but the idea that I could spread a disease that could kill people makes me quite anxious.<br /><br />I'm trying to keep both contradictory feelings in mind. At times I've wanted them to introduce severe restrictions but how much of what I feel is an anxious response to a situation I am not qualified to pass judgement on?<br /><br />It's hard for a layman like me to separate feeling from fact. As you say, it's a difficult time for all of us. I will do as is recommended and a bit more besides. I hope I'm getting it right.
Anonymous 2020/03/28 10:08
Elected officials need to be held accountable for the overall strategy. Passing the buck to the unelected FHM leads to unaccountable decision making and worse, wrong decisions. Elsewhere, elected officials take advice from experts and then make a political and social decision about what must be done. With the coronavirus, it is more than just science that should be guiding policy, it is the hopes and fears of an entire population that hang in the balance. Scientists will always be last movers. They are trained to gather evidence, and when faced with not having evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, they will always decide in favor of doing nothing. By handing key decisions over to the FHM, senior leaders in government are abdicating real responsibility for their citizens. Saying that this is the way we do things in Sweden is a cop out when faced with what might be the most tragic event of this century. The FHM present a different "Director" every time you turn on SVT. Who will ultimately be responsible for policy decisions in this country when the dust settles? In most advanced western democracies, the leader of the nation has ultimate responsibility for strategic policy decisions. This is the case in any business enterprise, and it's a feature of most major endeavors of consequence that human beings engage in. It's the case in the UK and Canada where the leader presents himself daily to the public. There, and in other countries, we know who is in charge. It is far from clear in Sweden who is leading us and who takes full responsibility for the government's actions. Decision making power is disbursed leading to incoherent policy, a policy that in one breath asks us to exercise social distancing, but in another freely admits the social distancing is not even taken into consideration in the mathematical models used to test the robustness of the healthcare system. This is the root cause of mixed messages and a reactionary (as opposed to proactive) course of action.
Anonymous 2020/03/28 07:09
The government is threatening families in Sweden - who have chosen to take their kids out of school - with fines and the social services if they do not return their children to school immediately. I have personally seen the letters and it makes me sick to the stomach, how frightening for those poor families. This country is unhinged with Swedish exceptionalism.
Anonymous 2020/03/28 06:35
I agree and have to say, still no face masks - because one institute in Germany say... but do you read the news from Germany. They also do not belive to the institute there, because they were wrong with covid already. I dont know, I am still young and hope that I and my family, worst case, still have good chance. But I am sad and angry for all your elder people... they are walking in the stores, on the streets. Someone have to say the truth, not only 80+ could die, also 56 years old died, also young 25-35 people are on ventilation in the europe... Are we prepared to accept it just so? Thats the reason why other countries do everything possible now. Not only what was approved from Koch institute. In Spain or Italy, maybe they will not heal you anymore. The dont do that in Germany, because of material and stuff issues. Are we ready for this? We can discuss it in a meeting with 50 participans...Lycka till!
Anonymous 2020/03/28 01:57
The notion that they are not experimenting is entirely false. Of course they are experimenting. And worse yet, they are not being clear about how this experiment (policies) are being designed or what exactly they have considered. Suggesting this is not an experiment is very misleading here. I suggest you retract that statement. They are not providing their experiment's participants the full picture nor the over 2000 researchers in Sweden who have written for it. This is very concerning and suggesting this is less concerning because they are experts is not ok. No experiment or public health policy trials would ever be approved at any university without first informing and obtaining consent from participants. This crisis is of course different than one at a university but the same ethical duty remains. They are not fulfilling it and you and all press need to hold them accountable because so far they are ignoring over 2000 researchers who have serious concerns.
Anonymous 2020/03/27 19:23
Trust those who view people as people and not government statistics. Keep the vulnerable safe and stay away from public places.

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