Contrary to popular opinion, Sweden’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is not so unusual. Sweden is not a coronavirus-denier, it is not continuing business as usual and it does not seek herd immunity; it is just trying to flatten the curve by social distancing using methods suitable for its society and its political culture. For example, the decisions are made at the professional level and not the political one, most of the directives are recommendations not obligatory orders and there is almost no enforcement through fines or police action.
The essential differences, compared to other countries, are few: Sweden did not close its elementary schools or its kindergartens; it did not recommend the wearing of masks and did not impose general lockdowns, because the authorities decided that these steps would do more harm than good.
The uniqueness of the Swedish model might therefore be defined as “non-imposing of lockdown.” This is a significant difference, but – and the conspiracy theorists will forgive me – it does not prove that Sweden treats the coronavirus like “flu with PR.”
The main argument of critics of the Swedish model is the high mortality rate, about 11,000 in a country of 10 million. While this is a human tragedy, even if we ignore the fact that the population of Sweden is very elderly (about 20 percent are age 65 or over), the number of the dead compared to the number of inhabitants is still much smaller than in other countries in Europe that imposed strict lockdowns, like France and Great Britain. The experience in Europe so far has shown that lockdowns do not necessarily reduce the level of mortality.
The focus on the “failure of the Swedish model” in this matter is absurd and its purpose is to justify the policy of lockdowns. Why isn’t anyone talking about the “failure of the Belgian model,” for example? The number of dead in Belgium, which imposed severe lockdowns, is about 1,800 per million inhabitants. In Sweden, the number is less than 1,100 per million.
“But even the king of Sweden himself said the Swedish model failed,” goes another common claim. King Carl Gustaf XVI did stammer something in an interview about the high number of the dead being a failure, but he did not relate to any specific component of the Swedish model, and certainly not to the fact that no lockdown was imposed. The criticism expressed by the king is also accepted by the state authorities, which concede the failure to protect nursing homes. But more importantly – and the monarchists will forgive me – the king of Sweden does not deal with the matter, he is not particularly knowledgeable about it and he has no influence or political power whatsoever.
One of the reasons lockdowns were not imposed in Sweden is that until the beginning of 2021, the law did not permit this. The government could and indeed did restrict public events and initiated emergency action, but it did not have the authority to close restaurants, malls or gyms. Laws can be changed, but the Swedes are hesitant when it comes to restricting personal freedoms and human rights. That is one of the reasons that they seek to change behavior voluntarily, without orders and fines. There are many indications that change has indeed been achieved this way.
In Sweden it is easier to maintain discipline, trust and solidarity. Many claim that this is because its population is homogenous (a polite way of saying they don’t have ultra-Orthodox communities or an Arab population). But the image of the Swedes as blond and obedient, hard-working and doing as they are told is false – a quarter of the population is made up of immigrants or second-generation immigrants. That is in fact a great challenge, but with a social-democratic welfare system, ethnic variety does not necessarily contradict trust and social responsibility. On the contrary – and the Greeks and the Hungarians will forgive me – a lack of trust in the authorities and concern over government corruption are common in quite a few countries that are more ethnically homogenous.
Another issue absent from the public debate is the global addiction to tables and numbers, which can be drawn and understood quickly: The number of infected, the number of seriously ill, the number of dead. It will be years before the price of the lockdowns will be measured and calculated, but public health is a broad concept, and there are reasons to believe that the advantages of the Swedish model will be recorded in the future with regard to phenomena like depression, addictions, violence, weight gain, diabetes, disrupted treatment of other illnesses, poverty, unemployment and more.
This is the price of a lockdown: It’s high, it's tough, and it must be paid over the course of years. Sweden decided to avoid this although the temptation was great. Nevertheless, hospitals in Stockholm never got to the situation of hospitals in Lombardia and Madrid; excess mortality in Sweden over the past few months is lower than that of Switzerland and Austria; and the number of seriously ill patients in Sweden is lower than in Romania and the Czech Republic. Like every other country, Sweden made mistakes in dealing with the pandemic. But not imposing a lockdown wasn’t one of them. Comparing the illness and mortality rates in Sweden and Israel is problematic because it’s hard to compare a warm, young country with closed borders and lot of experience with emergency situations to a cold and aging country with open borders that last experienced war in 1814. But, on second thought, that last part may not be such a disadvantage. Perhaps treating the pandemic like a military battle is a metaphor that got out of control, and produced sweeping, brutal solutions when what may really have been needed were complex, balanced and long-term solutions. I hope the generals will forgive me, but after all, the coronavirus is a virus, not an army, and COVID-19 is an illness, not a war