Debate: Is there a ‘sect’ around Sweden’s coronavirus strategy?

Debate: Is there a 'sect' around Sweden's coronavirus strategy?
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (L) and infectious disease professor Björn Olsen. Photo: Pontus Lundahl and Jessica Gow/TT
One of Sweden's most vocal critics of the national coronavirus strategy has claimed that a lack of critical thinking among both health agencies and Swedish media created a "sect-like" environment leading to unnecessary deaths.

The comments were made as part of Swedish Radio's summer series Sommar i P1, which invites a range of public figures in Sweden to host a radio show.

Infectious disease doctor and professor Björn Olsen said that Sweden could have avoided many of the negative consequences it's seen from the coronavirus if stronger actions had been taken earlier, including quarantines for returning travellers, early lockdowns, and a recommendation to wear face masks.

Olsen has been a vocal critic of the Public Health Agency's strategy throughout the pandemic and is one of 22 scientists who have regularly called for changes in the strategy through opinion articles in Swedish media.

“Far too many people died ahead of their time. Died of a virus that didn't need to spread uncontrollably,” he said in the programme, where he also discussed his experience of diagnosis with a brain tumour. He said there was “not enough time” in the one-hour programme to list all the mistakes made by the Swedish Public Health Agency.

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Olsen also criticised Swedish media for what he called an insufficient questioning of the strategy, saying that this combined with “groupthink” within the agency to create a “deadly cocktail”.

“Sectism is dangerous, and many media have been faithful preachers in the sect around the Swedish strategy. Groups benefit from having a devil's advocate in the room, a questioner who challenges groupthink and tunnel vision. This was obviously missing when the Public Health Agency characterised the corona pandemic as an ordinary influenza,” Olsen said.

He spoke about how, unlike flu, the coronavirus does not cause an even spread of infection but rather clusters of outbreaks, putting environments like hospitals, care homes, ski resorts, and areas of crowded housing at higher risk.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, the man who has become the face of the agency's strategy, also hosted a radio show in the same series earlier this summer.

Tegnell said that Sweden's high death toll, several times that of its Nordic neighbours, “should have been possible to avoid” and characterised the number of deaths among the elderly in Sweden as “an especially large failure”.

But he also said that with the pandemic still ongoing, it's still hard to draw clear conclusions of what the best strategy might have been. 

Björn Olsen said he did not think a strong second wave of the virus was likely, but that Sweden and the world can expect localised outbreaks and will likely have to live with the coronavirus for a long time to come.

Why are Sweden's coronavirus figures falling so sharply and what does it mean for the future?


Member comments

  1. There has not been anything of substance or evidence that has supported Sweden’s strategy. On the contrary, if anything, it has clearly shown that it does not work. There has also been many false reports, that many don’t trust the numbers of dead, infected, etc. Economy is busted, joblessness has risen and still rising, etc. So what gives? I think the Government has shown that their “sect” thinking, is just that. They don’t want to back down and accept their failure. Even the simplest of logic, about the usage of masks – it is a huge issue. Whether it protects even just 5% or less, it is still better than 0%, isn’t it? Again, do they not want to protect their people? They have proven that time and again now. Their arrogance based on their incompetence is NOT the way forward. I hope they can be humble and accept their failure for their people and for once, set aside their arrogance and think of the people.

  2. It is hard for me to determine whether there has been open, transparent and honest reporting and debate on the coronavirus issue in Sweden because I do not understand Swedish. However, I would agree that there has been an overall lack of critical debate and constructive dialogue regarding the threats posed by COVID, guidance on how the population should protect itself adequately, and the national leadership has not supported tolerance and understanding towards those who want to wear masks and other Personal Protective Equipment. The Media/Press in my opinion could have been more challenging and probing of how the Swedish government handled the Coronavirus outbreak, especially the testing of its population.

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