Odd Man Out Sweden, Slammed by Virus, Gets With the Program | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools

Photographer: Jonathan Nackstarnd/AFP/Getty Images

After taking arguably the world’s softest approach to handling the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden is tightening the screws.

As of Sunday, the government of Premier Stefan Lofven can fine and shutter businesses that fail to follow restrictions such as caps on visitors, as well as restrict private gatherings, under a new law that runs through September. It’s a departure from relying mainly on recommendations and trusting people to follow them. With the health-care system under increasing duress and deaths surging, some say it was too little too late.

“Like many places Sweden has learned about the virus the hard way,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health in Boston, who has followed the country’s strategy closely. “Sweden was too slow. There was ample evidence from the spring, in Sweden and elsewhere, of what could be expected in the autumn and winter if the policy was not changed and these are the consequences.”

While pursuing its unusual strategy, Sweden questioned other nations’ decisions to lock down. Its path to mandatory restrictions has left the Nordic country with more than three times more virus deaths per capita than Denmark, the closest regional peer in terms of fatalities. Confidence in the government has dwindled, and been compounded by top officials — including Lofven himself — flouting their own rules. Even King Carl XVI Gustaf called the nation’s response a failure.
As in the rest of the world, the debate in the pandemic era has centered around balancing people’s health against the fallout of shutting down economies. Sweden’s economy has held up better than most, while deaths now exceed 9,600.

Nordic Outlier

Sweden’s Covid-19 death toll is the highest in the Nordics

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Top epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who in June labeled countries that opted for strict lockdowns as “mad,” said the pandemic law shouldn’t be seen as a U-turn, but rather an extension of what’s already been done.

“We’re still mainly working with voluntary measures for individuals,” he said in an interview. “And we’re mainly working with regulating different kinds of agencies, different kinds of shops were regulations are needed for them to fulfill their obligations.”

One of Tegnell’s main detractors, Professor Bjorn Olsen of Uppsala University, said “reality has caught up with the Public Health Agency.”

“They have been extremely stubborn in holding on to the strategy without listening or doing any external analysis,” he said.

Anders Litzen lost his 71-year-old mother Agnetha in the spring, sitting by her side for her last 16 hours in full protective gear. The 42-year-old, who lost his job because of the pandemic and started working as a runner at a hospital, said the government’s communication has been too vague.

Anders Litzen

“‘My mother, and I think most Swedes, didn’t really take it seriously,” Litzen said. “I can’t say that what Sweden did is right or wrong, but from a personal perspective I think when you want to send a message, it has to be strong and clear.”

Lofven and health officials, facing early criticism including from President Donald Trump, acknowledged in April that the country hadn’t succeeded in protecting its elderly in nursing homes. A government-appointed commission recently reached a similar conclusion.

Sweden made “good decisions” in moving toward stricter measures, Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, told reporters on Monday.

“It’s an example of how difficult it is to sustain public health and social measures that are purely determined by the individual’s willingness or determination to carry out those measures,” Ryan said. “It somehow tells us that at the beginning of 2021 how difficult, how challenging that environment is.”

Health Versus Economy

The Nordic region’s largest economy has weathered the crisis better than most Western nations, with its factories less affected by supply disruptions in the latter part of 2020.

Differences in lockdown strategies between the Nordic and Baltic countries were offset by their common dependence on manufacturing, so they’ve benefited from a recovery of global trade, according to SEB AB Chief Economist Robert Bergqvist. “When we summarize 2020, the industry has helped us to withstand some of the downturns seen in many other countries.”

Post-Holiday Bounce

Economic activity partly recovered at the start of January

Source: Bloomberg Economics, Google, Moovitapp.com, German Statistical Office, BloombergNEF, Indeed.com, Shoppertrak.com, Opportunity Insights

Low debt levels also allowed Sweden to unleash fiscal stimulus, supported by the Riksbank’s asset purchase program. While the pandemic law may require additional stimulus measures, “in an international perspective, Sweden will still continue to have very strong central government finances,” Danske Bank said in its Nordic Outlook last week.

Leadership Void

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