Sweden’s coronavirus strategy sparks fierce debate as deaths pass 1,000

Sweden's coronavirus strategy sparks fierce debate as deaths pass 1,000
A tent where patients with respiratory symptoms are separated from other patients at Södertälje Hospital. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
Swedish health authorities hit back after a group of experts attacked the authorities' approach to the coronavirus crisis, as the country's death toll rose past 1,000.

Sweden's Public Health Agency said it had recorded a total of 11,445 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1,033 deaths.

And it warned that because not all deaths had yet been reported over the four-day Easter weekend, the true number might be higher.

“Deceased per day is probably the figure we can trust the least today, because there is normally a lot of trailing when it comes to weekends,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told journalists.

Sweden has not imposed the extraordinary lockdown orders implemented elsewhere in Europe to stem the spread of the virus, instead calling for citizens to take responsibility to follow social distancing guidelines.

The government has banned gatherings of more than 50 people and barred visits to nursing homes.

But the Nordic country's softer approach has still drawn criticism abroad and the been the subject of fierce debate at home.

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A group of 22 doctors, virologists and researchers criticised the Public Health Agency in an op-ed published by Dagens Nyheter newspaper on Tuesday.

They accused it of having failed to draw up a proper strategy, pointing out that the mortality rate in Sweden was now way above that of its Nordic neighbours.

“One would like to imagine that Sweden, too, has had a forward-looking strategy, especially since our country has always had a different way of facing the spread of the infection than the rest of the world,” they wrote, while stressing a number of more aggressive measures taken in Finland.

However, the op-ed in turn drew criticism for relying on figures that showed only how many deaths were reported in the period April 7th-9th. Those figures include deaths on previous days. As a result of trailing statistics, reported deaths per day are usually lower on weekends and higher on weekdays.

“The cited figures in and of themselves are in our view less important than the principle of the development of the pandemic which we are trying to highlight,” wrote the researchers in a clarification later on Tuesday.

During the Public Health Agency's daily news conference, Sweden's Anders Tegnell rejected the criticism from the experts, disputing the figures they had advanced.

Tegnell has previously stated that Finland appears to be in a different phase of the epidemic, which partly explains the lower mortality.

Finland, which has about half the population of Sweden, had as of Tuesday reported 64 deaths, and has closed down restaurants and schools.

On Tuesday, their public health chief recommended people wear masks in public to counter the spread of the virus by asymptomatic carriers.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde has already pushed back at criticism from US President Donald Trump, who last week said the country was not doing enough to combat the virus.

But Sweden has highlighted the spread of the coronavirus in elderly care homes in Stockholm as a failure, which is believed to have contributed to the Swedish capital's high death toll compared to the rest of the country. The country's immigrant population has also been hit hard, with Stockholm previously highlighting the overrepresentation of vulnerable suburbs Spånga-Tensta and Rinkeby-Kista in the infection statistics.

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What should you be doing to help reduce the rate of infection?

In Sweden, the official advice requires everyone to:

  • Stay at home if you have any cold- or flu-like symptoms, even if they are mild and you would normally continue life as normal. Stay at home until you have been fully symptom-free for at least two days.
     
  • Practise good hygiene, by regularly and thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, using hand sanitiser when that's not possible, and covering any coughs and sneezes with your elbow.
     
  • Keep distance from all other people when in public places. That includes shops, parks, museums, and on the street, for example. The World Health Organisation recommends keeping at least a 1.5-2 metre distance.
     
  • Avoid large gatherings, including parties, weddings, and other activities.
     
  • Work from home if you can. Employers have been asked to ensure this happens where possible.
     
  • Avoid all non-essential travel, both within and outside Sweden. That includes visits to family, planned holidays, and any other trips that can be avoided.
     
  • If you have to travel, avoid busy times such as rush hour if you can. This reduces the number of people on public transport and makes it easier for people to keep their distance.
     
  • If you are over 70 or belong to a high-risk group, you should stay at home and reduce all social contacts. Avoid going to the shops (get groceries delivered or try to find someone who can help you), but you can go outside if you keep distance from other people. Read more about the help available to those in risk groups here.
     
  • By following these precautions, we can all help to protect those who are most at risk and to reduce the rate of infection, which in turn reduces the burden on Sweden's healthcare sector.
     
  • Read more detail about the precautions we should all be taking in this paywall-free article. Advice in English is also available from Sweden's Public Health Agency and the World Health Organisation.

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