Israel is back in lockdown while Swedish COVID-19 mortality rates are plummeting. Here’s the difference

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren tells Haaretz why her country never imposed a full lockdown, and why public trust in the government is a vital component of fighting the coronavirus

Published in "Haaretz":

STOCKHOLM – Back in April, many worldwide thought the Swedes had lost their minds. As country after country shuttered its schools, shopping malls and restaurants due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden decided to take another approach. 

Despite the Scandinavian country’s death toll reaching a peak of about 100 a day by mid-April, many Swedes were still going about their daily lives, face masks were not recommended and rarely used, young children were still going to school, and no national isolation system was set up for infected but asymptomatic individuals. And though many businesses took a hit – because Sweden relies heavily on its export trade – most remained open and gradually started to rebound. It’s not as if Sweden did nothing at all to combat the virus. High schools and universities switched to online learning, most cultural, entertainment and sports venues closed, and the general population was asked to maintain hygiene and social distancing, avoid traveling wherever possible, and to stay home when symptoms appeared. 

But there was clearly a major difference between the Swedish way and that of the rest of the world. Besides legal restrictions prohibiting gatherings of over 50 people or visitors at hospitals and retirement homes, most were recommendations rather than legal decrees. Fines, police enforcement, mobile phone tracking and curfews were deemed unnecessary. 

Despite this, most Swedes observed social distancing and the infection rate finally began to drop. Last week, Sweden carried out over 140,000 tests, with 1.2 percent coming back positive. The country currently has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe. 

While the curves are clearly flattening, the government isn’t wasting time. After a traumatic spring, it’s doing its best to learn from its initial mistakes by improving testing capabilities and boosting the economy. 

It’s a stark contrast to Israel, which has just become the first country to enter lockdown for a second time. Yet Sweden’s health minister, Lena Hallengren, told Haaretz that it’s not just about having or not having a lockdown.

“It’s true we didn’t have lockdowns [in Sweden], but we did have lots of changes in society – and the most crucial thing is having long-term measures,” she said. “Without a lockdown, restaurants, bars, trains and buses have to be adapted with regulations – legally binding or recommendations. You have to always maintain distance, have signs, information, sanitizing, washing hands: all that has to be in place. We can see that you can’t lock down the virus forever, and you always have to consider the price that society pays.”

Lena Hallengren, Photo: Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet

Falling mortality rates

Different countries’ success rates in handling the coronavirus has become something of a “sport” in the past six months, a table reflecting the global “winners” and “losers.” Given its outlier approach, Sweden has come under particularly close scrutiny: initially, it drew harsh criticism and was used as a cautionary tale; now, it’s offered as a slightly more sustainable model than repeatedly going into lockdown. But Hallengren is careful about making any comparisons. 

“We’ve said since the beginning of the pandemic that this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she said. “It’s not a competition and there’s no point saying who the winner is. It’s far too early and too dangerous to compare week-by-week mortality rates. Different countries were hit differently; they have different structures and relations with their authorities, they test in different ways and have different kinds of data and information. In the long run, we all need well-functioning societies. We should learn what there is to learn from others, point less fingers and try to keep up with long-term recommendations,” she added. 

So far, some 5,800 people in Sweden have died due to COVID-19, mainly as a result of the virus spreading in Sweden’s nursing and care homes in the spring. 

“In the worst week of April, we had 845 new cases of infection in elderly care facilities. Last week we had 17,” Hallengren reported. “Our mortality rates have also fallen radically. We don’t have excess mortality and in August, the rates were below normal [yearly] figures.”

Hallengren also tried to look beyond the headline figure concerning COVID-19 deaths. “One [southern] region in Sweden, Östergötland, recently conducted a study investigating all cases of elderly patients who died infected from the coronavirus,” she said. “In only 15 percent of the cases was it concluded that COVID-19 was the direct cause of death. In 15 percent [of cases], the real reason was another illness or medical condition, and in 70 percent of cases COVID-19 contributed to death due to underlying conditions or the health status of the patient.”

The health minister said her government is analyzing why the coronavirus hit Sweden so badly, especially in comparison to its Nordic neighbors, and is taking long-term measures to tackle possible new local outbreaks. 

Scenarios are being prepared by government authorities and financial resources allocated to address unemployment and support the health care system, as well as those in elderly and mental health care. “The outbreak of COVID-19 is not, and has never been, a narrow health issue for the infected people,” Hallengren said. “It’s a broad issue affecting all parts of society.”

‘Functioning society’

When quizzed on Sweden’s “no lockdown” policy, Hallengren said that although a total lockdown was never imposed, remote work, online studying in high schools and universities, and restrictions on entertainment venues affected the country’s citizens. 

“It was certainly not ‘business as usual’ in Sweden,” she said, rebutting a common claim, “but we needed to have a functioning society. That’s why we made an active decision not to close preschools and elementary schools. If you close schools, how do you enable people to work at the care homes, hospitals, and police and emergency forces? How do you keep the pharmacies, commuter trains and food stores running and open?  

“We decided to lean on experts and the available knowledge at the time,” she explained. “We knew children were not severely affected and not the ones spreading the virus. This was proven by looking at the number of people on sick leave. Teachers working at preschools and schools were not sicker than other groups in society. 

“We need to fight the virus, we need to protect vulnerable groups,” she continued. “But we need to make sure that the measures can be kept for a long time in a functioning society.  

“Swedish people have high confidence in government authorities,” she added, “so with transparency and a lot of quantifying information, we created a strategy based on taking the right measures at the right time and in the right part of Sweden.”

How do you respond to allegations that Sweden sacrificed its older population for the sake of the economy?

“That criticism is unfair and untrue. Of course we never sacrificed anyone. We tried our very best, as I suppose other countries did, to protect lives, to stop the virus spreading in society and to protect the vulnerable groups. 

“The care homes have been an extremely difficult and sad part, but they are very specific – people living there are extremely old, fragile and sick. We created a government commission to find out what happened, who did what and what we can learn from this. 

“In Sweden, care homes are not just facilities for older people; they provide health care. We have 1,700 such homes and about 85,000 people live in them. Fifty percent of them live in these homes for only six months – that’s how old, fragile and multi-diseased their situation is. If you get COVID-19 or even the flu into these homes, it’s a matter of life and death.”

Retirement homes were generally perceived to be the weakest link in Sweden’s coronavirus strategy. But there’s another part of it that others could benefit from: decision-making based on expertise rather than politics. 

“We [political decision-makers] are thinking people and we're responsible for the decisions we make,” Hallengren said, “but our authorities wouldn’t be independent if we’d sometimes decide to follow the experts on disease prevention and disease control, and sometimes not to do so. You don’t have experts and expert agencies just to have them. You have them to listen to, and take what they know into consideration,” she concluded.

No Entry to Israel

Israel’s borders slammed shut to foreigners in mid-March due to the coronavirus, creating a nightmarish situation for hundreds of Israelis living overseas with nonnational partners. Many accuse the state of discrimination, especially as some Diaspora Jews are now being allowed in.

Published in Haaretz:

At the start of the coronavirus crisis in March, Israel barred all foreigners from entering the country. Beyond the broader economic and political ramifications of closing the country’s doors, this decision hit one group of Israelis especially hard: those in relationships with nonnationals.

Yaara Mizrachi, 32, met her Dutch partner while serving as the international secretary of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. They have been together for seven years, going back and forth between Israel and Germany. A year ago, they became mothers when her partner gave birth to their son.

“We were together in Berlin during the pregnancy and birth,” Mizrachi says. “Afterward, we were in Israel, but when the coronavirus began spreading, my partner decided to go visit her parents. She flew to Berlin and from there took a train to the Netherlands on the last day before they closed the border.”

Now Mizrachi is in a bind. Israelis still aren’t allowed to enter the European Union’s 27 member states, but her partner isn’t allowed to enter Israel either.

“I haven’t seen my son since March, and my partner has effectively become a single mother,” she tells Haaretz. “I see her difficulties but have no way of helping her, and this a nightmare.

“It’s very sad to see my child in videos and pictures, to see how he’s starting to crawl and grow teeth without my being there. There’s a feeling of lack of control over my life. True, we have experience with a long-distance relationship, but this is really intolerable.”

Though Mizrachi’s story is sad, some might say it’s an unavoidable side-effect of a relationship that was never formalized, since they aren’t married. But this argument is refuted by the story of Hila Nahmani, 43, an Israeli who lives in Antwerp with her husband Robin and their two children, 2-year-old Liv and 3-month-old Adam.

Hila still has a design business in Israel. She makes payments to Israel’s National Insurance Institute and her marriage is registered in Israel.

“I gave birth to my son the day Belgium went into lockdown,” she relates. “A few weeks later, we decided to fly to Israel to visit my elderly parents. After I saw hundreds of [Facebook] posts about foreigners not being allowed to enter Israel, I sent an email to the embassy.

Hila Nahmani with partner Reuben and daughter Liv
Hila Nahmani with partner Robin and daughter Liv Credit: ‏‎Nati Maman

She received an unequivocal response: “Because your center of life hasn’t been in Israel for the last year, you cannot currently submit a request for permission for a visit by your husband, who isn’t an Israeli citizen,” it stated.

Moreover, since her son was born at a time when the embassy was operating on a limited basis due to the pandemic, she couldn’t register him as an Israeli citizen. This meant he too was barred from entering Israel. In other words, had Nahmani decided to visit Israel, she would have had to leave her husband and 3-month-old son behind.

‘Violation of basic rights’

Today, Nahmani is fluent in the rules. Married couples registered at the Population Registry and children entitled to Israeli citizenship can in principle be recognized as exceptions to the no-foreigners rule. Nevertheless, she isn’t confident any new request would be granted.

“There’s an important issue of principle here beyond my ability to bring my family – including my young son who has never met his grandfather – on a visit to Israel,” Nahmani says.

“This is a gross violation of my basic rights. I’m an Israeli citizen, but they aren’t letting me bring my family to Israel at a time when yeshiva students in New York and medical tourists are being allowed to enter Israel,” she adds. “This is discrimination and I feel like a second-class citizen because I didn’t marry a Jew, the way the Chief Rabbinate decided people should marry.”

While there are no explicit rules in the travel ban that discriminate against non-Jews, a series of technical, bureaucratic regulations have created de facto discrimination. One exception, for instance, covers yeshiva students.

“Because of the importance of studying Torah and resuming regular study, I decided, in coordination with the foreign and health ministries, to allow avrechim [married yeshiva students] at the holy veteran yeshivas and their families to resume studying at these institutions of learning, if they want to return to Israel and have a valid residency visa,” Interior Minister Arye Dery wrote to yeshiva heads in mid-May. The letter was subsequently published in the ultra-Orthodox press.

“To ease this process, I decided that applications will be made by the yeshiva heads directly to the Population and Immigration Authority rather than through the consulates,” the letter added.

Initially, all foreign yeshiva students were allowed to enter. Two weeks later, permission was canceled for single students, but married yeshiva students and their families can still come.

Another exception concerns the entry permits for those participating in weddings, specifically first-degree relatives as well as the grandparents of the couple. According to a binding letter from lawmaker Rabbi Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism), one of the documents that must be submitted to gain entry is proof that the marriage registration process began in Israel. In other words, this is only for weddings held under the Orthodox religious establishment.

The Israeli list of priorities states that a religious wedding allows entry into Israel, but partners who are in a serious and committed relationship are unable to meet under any condition if one is a foreigner. Also, Haaretz has obtained documents concerning a number of cases in which the Israeli authorities have asked for “rabbinical wedding certificates” in order to decide on the entry requests of foreigners.

Great efforts

Some 20 cases of requests for the entry of nonnationals from 15 different countries were examined for this story. Almost all were denied.

For example, Shahar Koren, 25, lives in Zichron Yaakov with her Danish partner Mads, who holds a visa allowing him to live and work in Israel. Mads, who went for a visit to Denmark, wants to return to Israel but the Interior Ministry told him he is not allowed to return to his home, work or partner.

Another Israeli, Ella Wigelman, 33, is currently living alone in Israel after she had no choice but to leave her husband, Matthias, in their home in Mannheim, Germany. Her father is hospitalized in serious condition, and after the Interior Ministry twice turned down a request to allow her husband into Israel, she was forced to fly alone.

Ella Wigelman and partner Matthias
Ella Wigelman and partner Matthias. 

“We did the required process of registering our marriage with the Israeli Consulate in Munich,” she says. “We filled out all the forms, paid for the apostille and met all the conditions. But the process is long and the new status is still not updated in Berlin.”

Now they’re awaiting an answer to their third request. In the meantime, Wigelman has been forced to stay in Israel for a long time – even though they are legally married and do not represent a health risk to anyone – and is finding it difficult without the support of her husband.

Michal Erlich, 35, and her Indian husband, who is the head of the Israel Studies department at Jindal University in Delhi, have an Israeli-recognized “Domestic Union Card” issued by the New Family organization, which advocates for family rights in Israel.
Since 2015, they have lived alternatively in India and Israel, and are currently residing in India with their daughter, who has Israeli citizenship. They submitted three entry requests between the end of April and the beginning of June, and all were denied – in spite of the documents testifying to joint parenthood, marriage and special insurance, which was obtained after great effort and includes a clause concerning COVID-19.

Last week, Population and Immigration Authority Director Shlomo Mor-Yosef was quizzed on Israeli radio about the story of a woman who was forced to give birth alone in Israel when her partner, the father of the child – whose entry into Israel was not approved – was forced to watch the birth on WhatsApp from Los Angeles. Mor-Yosef explained that the father was not allowed to enter because the couple had no documentation proving they were married and expecting a child together, which by association means that those who have the proper documentation should be able to enter.

Erlich heard the interview, after which she approached the embassy again. “They helped us a great deal. They turned to the Interior Ministry again, and the fourth time, we received the sought-after entry permit – even though nothing had changed since the previous time,” she recounts.

The last of the “rescue flights” to Israel has long since gone, so Michal and her husband are now searching for another flight to reach Israel. “I thought about whether to tell my story,” she admits. “The Interior Ministry’s laws are not clear; it’s hard to know what they will decide about our fate, and we have a general feeling of fear. Are they able to cancel the permit? Will they single us out? It feels as if they’re doing us a favor by letting us in, even though it’s my daughter’s right to be with her father, and my full right to be with my partner alongside my family in Israel.

Nahmani, who is married to a Belgian citizen with all the necessary documentation, is convinced that discrimination, not lack of proof, lies at the heart of the policy. “My grandfather fought in the Irgun, his sister was in the Haganah [both are pre-state underground militias], our family is connected to Judaism, we did a bris for the child, my husband has been in Israel dozens of times and I always defended Israel,” she says.

“The only reason they aren’t allowing my husband to enter Israel is that he’s not Jewish,”  she adds. “If I need to leave Europe, what am I supposed to do? Leave my partner, my love, my soulmate behind? I don’t want to come in order to show him Lake Kinneret. We aren’t tourists. My father is elderly, my brother is about to get married, it’s my family. When I came to Belgium, I got everything. In Israel, whoever isn’t Jewish doesn’t get anything.”

Physical suffering

In addition to the rejection of requests for family reunification, there are cases in which it seems the Israeli authorities are apathetic to the physical suffering of Israeli patients who want to undergo medical treatments in Israel but are unwilling to be separated from their partners in order to do so. Eden Fainberg, 29, met her partner, Milo, during a visit to Australia three years ago. After living together for about a year in Australia, the couple moved to Berlin, but for medical reasons decided to leave Germany and spend some time in Israel.

Eden Fainberg and partner Milo
Eden Fainberg and partner Milo.

“I am ill with endometriosis,” says Fainberg, an illustrator. “I decided to undergo treatment for the disease in Israel because it is a long and complicated treatment, it includes physical pain and a long rehabilitation process, and I want to be close to my family and, of course, my partner.”
The plan was to come to Israel at the end of February or beginning of March. After leaving Germany, the couple stopped in Spain for a few days prior to heading to Israel. At this stage, everything began to go wrong. Upon arrival at the Spanish airport, the couple discovered Israel had closed its gates to people arriving from Spain. They then decided to cross the border to Portugal, which was still relatively unaffected by the coronavirus. Israel was still accepting passengers traveling from Lisbon at that point, so it seemed the right thing to do.

“Even though I could enter Israel alone, I’m not willing to be separated from my partner,” Fainberg relates. “I need him alongside me, I’m in heavy pain all the time. I went through a psychological crisis, I had depression and anxiety, and the treatment I’m supposed to have could also very well end in a hysterectomy.”

Fainberg says that at the time she was constantly in touch with Israeli embassies in Europe and the authorities in Israel through relatives and friends. “On March 11, I spoke with the Israeli Embassy in Portugal,” she recounts. “I explained my story; they recommended that I buy a ticket and fill out the self-isolation form. I got the impression that it was impossible to rely on that when we reached Israel, but that Milo would be allowed to enter. It was clear the embassy was not familiar about the details.”

“On March 14, everything was already closed [in Israel] and my friend who works in the Population and Immigration Authority told me there was no chance Milo could enter Israel,” she says. “I called the embassy in Lisbon again to clarify the possibility of submitting an exceptional request, but they told me the chances that it would receive a positive answer were very low.”

Now, the couple has to leave Portugal as their three-month visas have expired. They must return to Germany, although their work visas there will run out soon.

“The hardest thing is that there’s no horizon, no expected date when the skies will reopen,” Fainberg says. “I’ve obtained insurance, we can do all the required tests and we’re willing to go into quarantine. All I want is to return home and look after my body – but I need my partner beside me.”

Beyond reasonable

Moran Liani also needs medical attention in Israel. She’s 35 and has spent the past two years living in London with her Italian husband, Mateo, while working as an analyst at a British bank. “Not only are we married,” she says, “we got married three times: in Israel, in Italy and in England.” The Israeli wedding was conducted by a rabbi, but is not recognized by the Rabbinate because Moran’s husband underwent a Reform conversion.

Moran Liani with partner Mateo
Moran Liani with partner Mateo

“When the lockdown began, we thought we’d go to Israel,” Moran relates. “My parents are relatively old and we wanted to be close to them. Moreover, there’s some medical procedure I need to have done in Israel. We turned to the embassy in London in order to ensure that we’d have no problem getting in, and were told that my husband would not be allowed in since we’re not registered as being married in Israel. I told them that I’m ready to update the Population Registry, but the embassy has not yet returned to regular hours of operation, leaving us still here.” Updating the Population Registry by mail takes months and is also quite expensive.

“I want to go to Israel, but I won’t leave my husband here alone,” she says. “It’s beyond any degree of reasonableness. It’s so wrong – what’s the problem with letting foreigners tied to Israelis enter the country if they’re willing to be quarantined and sign whatever they have to? After all, how many such people are there?”

There’s no definitive answer to that question, but Plia Kettner, 35, is in touch with hundreds of Israelis and foreigners affected by the ban. A member of the Kfar Sava City Council, Kettner has founded a Facebook group called “We Want to Meet Each Other,” which now has over 1,000 members.

“At first I thought, like everyone else around the world, that the coronavirus was here for a short period and would soon disappear,” she says. “As soon as I realized that it’s here to stay, I couldn’t accept the fact that Israel was tearing people apart from their loved ones. I set up the group in order to launch a campaign that would exert public pressure to change this decision.”


Plia Kettner
Enter a Plia Kettner Credit: Rita Yurkovichcaption

Kettner has been personally affected by the ban. Her partner, Erik, is in Sweden and the two haven’t met for months. “It was clear to me that they wouldn’t let me and people like me see family members. This especially includes partners if they don’t have a ring on their finger or are not formally registered as such. Registration doesn’t attest to the depth of the connection between people.”

She knows that many other countries aren’t letting nonnationals in, but claims that in contrast to other states, Israel is not offering any hope. “It’s true that other countries have closed their borders, but while the European Union decided that its external borders would slowly reopen to foreigners in July – but only to countries that reciprocate the gesture, which is fair – Israel is not giving any likely date for reopening its borders. This leaves many couples and families in the dark, without any idea of when they’ll see each other again.”

The coronavirus, Kettner concludes, “isn’t going anywhere; it will be with us for a long time. And precisely for that reason, Israel must find a way of keeping these couples and families united. One has to acknowledge that there are different types of families and couples, and be considerate of mixed couples with the understanding that people today don’t always formally register as couples in a world that’s a global village.

“This could mean lifting the prohibition on the entry of foreigners or allowing proof of couplehood by other means – such as correspondence or photos,” she continues. “There’s no shortage of ways in which this can be done. The ban can definitely be lifted while asking people to prove they’re in isolation for two weeks. Anyone coming to meet their partner will have a place in which to be quarantined. These days, the state must find creative solutions in order not to violate the basic human rights of its citizens.”

The Knesset’s coronavirus committee will discuss the issue on Monday. According to MK Merav Michaeli (Labor), the Interior Ministry and Rabbinate “control the most personal affairs of Israelis and deny families the most basic right to reunite.” She tells Haaretz that the “absurd” situation “discriminates against these families and prevents them from entering the country, while many avrechim who are not Israeli citizens are allowed to enter.”

Michaeli adds that she has received many requests from Israelis who live abroad and feel abandoned by the state. “This policy must be changed,” she says.

Monday’s committee meeting was initiated by MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), who says the conditions regulating the entry of non-Israeli relatives or partners of Israeli citizens are unrealistic. “We must allow hundreds of families to reunite with their loved ones,” she says.

Asked for comment to this story, the Interior Ministry responded: “Since the global coronavirus outbreak began, most countries, if not all, have closed their gates to foreigners, and so did Israel. This was done to prevent or reduce the entry of the virus into Israel. This was publicized in every possible medium and in every language.

“Despite this, over the last month, leniencies have gradually been introduced. We decided to approve the entry, under certain conditions, of foreign spouses, artists, athletes, experts, students, avrechim and others.

“Needless to say, any Israeli citizen is nevertheless entitled to enter at any given moment.”

Despite Haaretz’s question, the ministry declined to say how many requests for foreigners to enter Israel were approved or rejected in each of these categories (spouses, experts, athletes, avrechim, medical tourists, etc.).

What Can Be Learned from the Swedish Coronavirus Case

STOCKHOLM – In the final analysis the Swedes will disappoint everyone. Those who claim that their own government's reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was hysterical, because "in Sweden it's business as usual," have yet to discover how little they knew about business in Sweden. Even those who claim that countries that opted for a lockdown saved numerous lives, as opposed to the Swedes who are dying in the thousands, will discover that the numbers are misleading and confusing.

Published in Haaretz:

Both groups will be forced to find another source to prove their arguments. Last week, for example, headlines worldwide declared that the Swedes admit their mistake and that their model for dealing with COVID-19 has collapsed. The headlines were incorrect. The Swedish authorities are still adhering to their initial strategy, and the presumed admission of a mistake was a general statement that was taken totally out of context. But Sweden has long since become a punching bag for those justifying the lockdown policy as well as an exemplar for those who oppose it. Meanwhile, in the real world, the situation is more complex.

First it should be noted that it is not business as usual in Sweden – high schools and universities have switched to distance learning, most of the cultural, entertainment and sports venues are closed, and residents were asked to work from home, maintain social distancing and avoid traveling. Although most of the restrictions are only recommendations, it can be proven that most Swedes observe them meticulously,

Despite that, the elementary schools and preschools did not close, no lockdown was imposed and there is no obligation to wear a mask. These are examples of controversial policies, which may turn out to be more damaging than beneficial. It is definitely possible that the Swedish government is wrong, but the claim that it is practicing “human experimentation” could be directed to all the other governments too. In times of coronavirus uncertainty, steps such as isolating asymptomatic patients, prohibiting swimming in the sea and closing places of business are also a gamble. It’s clear to everyone that they all cause social, economic and health-related damage, but it is still unknown if and to what extent these steps limit the spread of the virus.

As is true of every country, Sweden has advantages and disadvantages in dealing with the pandemic. The advantages include: an efficient public sector, a good health care system, a sparse population and a large number of single-person households (about 40 percent of households). And on the other hand, the Swedish population is elderly (about 20 percent are aged 65 and above), the country has open borders and a cold climate, and about one fifth of the population was born outside the country – and therefore has less trust in the authorities and limited access to their directives.

There is therefore a limit to our ability to learn from the terrible figure – about 4,500 dead. Even if we ignore the differences in the way countries count their dead, and complex data such as overall and excess mortality – it is hard to compare young countries with elderly ones, hot countries with cold ones, and open and closed countries. Although Worldometer charts have become a morbid sport of body counts and patriotic wrestling matches, it is doubtful whether we can learn from counting the dead about the degree of effectiveness in a country’s handling of the pandemic, and especially the effectiveness of lockdowns.

Heading the charts are Belgium, Spain, Italy, England and France – countries which imposed a lockdown, and occasionally adopted tough measures to enforce it. They are followed by Sweden, without a lockdown and with a “soft policy.” And then come the rest of the countries, which have various ways of dealing with the problem. There are countries that imposed a lockdown and have a high mortality rate (Belgium), there are countries with a lockdown and a low mortality rate (Israel), countries without a lockdown and a high mortality rate (Sweden) and some without a lockdown and a low mortality rate (Iceland). And of course there are also differences between one city and the next in the same country.

Why then have so many died in Sweden? At this point it seems that the failure is not related to the failure to impose a lockdown. There is no evidence of a significant contribution by schools or shopping centers to the spread of the pandemic. But there is evidence of a different failure – the treatment of the elderly. Although the handling of senior citizens’ homes was problematic all over the world, in Sweden the situation was especially grave. Recently it was revealed that due to power struggles among the authorities, the personnel were not prepared, there was a lack of equipment and the ban on visits was belated.

And yes, although Sweden is a developed welfare state, in the years when the seeds of the failure were sown it suffered from another plague: privatization, cutbacks and reforms in the public sector. Today, as opposed to the situation in the past, senior citizens’ homes in Stockholm lack work slots, equipment and skilled manpower. This is another example of the helplessness of the “invisible hand” when it comes to managing crises and protecting the weak.

Is it true, as has been claimed, that Sweden gave up on its elderly for the sake of the economy? Definitely not. First of all, public health is managed by an independent authority, which is not subject to economic considerations. Second, the Swedish economy is export-oriented. Initial investigations have shown that the blow to Sweden did not differ greatly from that of its neighbors. In Sweden too there was a decline in consumption, growth was harmed and unemployment increased. Even if local businesses remained open, Volvo cannot manufacture vehicles when there is interference in the supply chains and demand plummets, and H&M cannot sell clothing when factories and malls the world over are closed. Not to mention the tourism industry. Policymakers knew that and did not waste time on attempts to prevent the blow, but instead channeled money to reduce the damage it caused.

Even more serious is the claim that the Swedes tried to save the economy by achieving herd immunity, because initial examinations demonstrated that Sweden is very far from that objective. But Sweden has never claimed that it was aiming at herd immunity – on the contrary, it vehemently denied that. The objectives were to flatten the curve of the number of patients and to protect the populations at risk. The first objective was achieved: intensive care beds and ventilators were ready for use at all times – an impressive achievement, because there was no need for a ruinous lockdown. In the case of the second objective, the Swedes themselves admit failure. Those using the example of Sweden would do well to stop looking at the country for proof for their arguments, and to try to think what can be learned from the Swedish case. In the final analysis, this is not a theoretical exercise, it is an essential preparation for the second wave.