Swedes ‘highly trusting’ of government’s pandemic response, but still don’t feel ‘free’: EU study

Swedes 'highly trusting' of government's pandemic response, but still don't feel 'free': EU study
Tourists and shoppers on a central Stockholm street pictured this July. Photo: Stefan Jerrevång/ TT
A majority of the people in Sweden who were affected by Covid-19 think the country's restrictions should have been stricter, a new study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) finds.

Sweden has favoured non-coercive measures throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning that while bar and restaurant opening times were temporarily reduced and public events also limited by law, most measures around social distancing, domestic travel, mask-wearing and non-essential businesses have relied on individual judgment.

The study was carried out through online and phone surveys in 12 EU countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, with representative samples of around 1,000 people questioned in each country.

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Europe-wide, the authors wrote that “the poll exposes a stark divide between the east and the south, on the one hand, and the north and the west, on the other”. As well as Sweden, a majority of respondents in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, said neither they nor their close family and friends had been personally impacted by either serious disease, bereavement, or economic hardship, but most respondents in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Spain, and Portugal reporting that they were personally affected by the crisis.

The people surveyed were also quizzed on their perceived level of freedom in everyday life and their stance on whether the restrictions were too strict, the right level, or not strict enough.

Of the countries studied, Sweden was the only country where a majority of those impacted by the illness said they felt national restrictions had not been strict enough. A total of 52 percent agreed with that statement, a clear ten percentage points more than in any other surveyed country, while just 6 percent (the lowest of the 12 countries) thought they were too strict and 42 percent felt they were about right. 

“Impacted by the illness” included respondents who picked at least one of the following: “Contracting a serious case of Covid”, “Being hospitalised for Covid”, “Death of a friend” or “Death of a relative”.

In neighbouring Denmark and four other countries (Hungary, Bulgaria, Portugal and Austria), a majority of people who had been directly affected by Covid-19 agreed that restrictions were about right, while the proportion who felt they were not strict enough ranged from only 12 percent in Denmark to 42 percent in France.

The report warned of divides across the continent as a result of the crisis, likening it to the effect of the euro crisis and 2015 mass arrivals of refugees.

“Europeans are divided over what they believe to be governments’ motivations behind restrictions: the Trustful have faith in governments; the Suspicious believe rulers want to cover up failings; the Accusers think governments are trying to increase their control over people,” the authors wrote, with Swedes rated as the most “Trustful”.

But the fact that most Swedes felt restrictions were too lax did not lead to an increased sense of freedom.

Across Europe, 22 percent of respondents said they felt free in their everyday life, ranging from 11 percent in Hungary to 41 percent in Hungary, while 27 percent said they did not feel free, and the range was from 11 percent in Spain to 49 percent in Germany. In Sweden, 23 percent reported feeling free now, roughly in line with the average, while 24 percent did not feel free, and 50 percent felt partly free.

When asked how free they felt before the pandemic, across Europe 64 percent said they felt free before the pandemic while only seven said they did not feel free (the remainder answered ‘feeling partly free’ or ‘don’t know). 

However, Swedes were still highly trusting of their government’s intentions, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement “The main motivation for restrictions/lockdowns is to help limit the spread of the virus” rather than “to give the government an excuse to control the public” or “to make it look like the government is in control of the situation”. Only Denmark had a higher level of trust, at 77 percent, while in Poland the figure was just 38 percent.

Sweden fell in the middle of the table when respondents were asked if they had been directly affected by Covid-19. A third (33 percent) reported being impacted by illness, 13 percent economically impacted, and 55 percent not impacted at all. Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands all reported a lower impact.

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