Sweden refuses to lock down. But why? Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye sets out for a trip from the islands in the archipelago to the northern suburbs of the capital Stockholm in search of answers.

STOCKHOLM – It is a crisp Saturday morning in April in the strange year of 2020. A white ferry splices through the icy gray-blue sea connecting some of the 24,000 islands of the Stockholm archipelago. This time of the year, the ferries are usually full of families on their way to their summerhouses to celebrate Easter weekend— a week away.

But now signs inform passengers that they should stay home and public transportation companies run commercials saying that they don’t want people to travel with them unless it’s absolutely necessary. Standing on deck, I feel a little guilty about making this day trip, riding both the ferry and buses, but I really both want and need to go out to our summer place and tend to my small old wooden boat.

In the early part of Easter week, the number of COVID-deaths in Sweden’s population of ten million surpassed 500 — a higher fatality rate per capita than any other Scandinavian country. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has even told the Swedish press that the country should be prepared for thousands of deaths.

Meanwhile Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist who has set Sweden’s policy, said during the daily press conference on Friday that the strategy of the Public Health Agency can be fully evaluated only after a couple of years have passed. It’s not until then that we can see whether people died of other diseases because focus was on corona patients, or what consequences it will have on the children’s education keeping them out of school for so long, or spikes in domestic violence due to abusers and victims being in lockdown or quarantine together, or what effects it had on mental illness.

But so far, according to the Public Health Agency there are no more people dying each day now than last year at the same time.

Sweden has set its own course in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, relying on its citizens to control the virus through social distancing and good hygiene.

And Easter is a defining moment as Swedes wonder how much the virus will spread during the holidays.

Though celebrating Easter has become a secular holiday in Sweden and few people go to church, it’s still a large family get together and children dress up in colorful clothes and paint their faces like “Easter-witches” and walk around neighborhoods asking for sweets. (It’s a lot like the American Halloween tradition, but these witches are more cute than scary). This year, though, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has called off the “begging for candy” part.

During the weeks leading up to Easter, media reports about carefree Swedes walking around have gone viral, and while many countries have shut down schools, restaurants, shops and borders, Sweden is still open for business. But it’s not business as usual, as everybody who knows Stockholm can see.

“We are in quarantine”, says one couple on their way back to their summerhouse after stocking up on groceries that will last them another month, meaning “self quarantine”.

And they are not alone. Since March many of the one-million or so inhabitants of the Swedish capital who are retired and fortunate enough to own a summerhouse in the archipelago have gone into hiding. Not because they are forced to, but because they prefer it.

When the ferry docks at the end station, passengers line up with a good distance between them at the bus stop. Nothing unusual for Swedes, who like their distance regardless of viruses or flu-seasons, but you can tell things are different when the bus driver opens the back door instead of the front for boarding. Domestic travel like this is discouraged, but not enforced other than through public shaming. “I know only people with a reason are supposed to be on the bus,” one passenger says apologetically, “but I have to go shopping, I will be quick”.

The bus driver tells me that when the first cases where reported, a month ago, some drivers removed the front seats to create distance to passengers. Then they sealed off the driver’s seat with wood. At first the bus companies objected, telling the drivers that the front exit was important in case of an emergency. A compromise was made and there is now a barrier made of tape.

* * *

The architect behind the Swedish COVID-19 response is epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. Since the outbreak, he has held a daily press conference in Stockholm and answers the same questions over and over:

“No, our schools are not closed because then the healthcare sector would lose 30 percent of the work force and this is not a disease that seems to affect children”.
”No, we are not banning all public gatherings but if you feel sick you should not go to work or school”.
When neighbouring Denmark announced the closure of its borders, Dr Tegnell told media that this had no scientific basis: “In Denmark and Norway, political leaders have gone against their public health agencies’ advice on key matters like closing borders. That hasn’t happened in Sweden. Yet.”

So why has Sweden decided against the draconian regulations imposed in other countries?

One key factor according to the Swedish minister for foreign affairs, Ann Linde, is Sweden’s politically independent public agencies—and the high level of public trust in them. For the last 400 years, Sweden has had a system with small ministries but big agencies, like the Public Health Agency, which explains why there is an epidemiologist and not a prime minister at the helm of this effort.

“In this case the Public Health authorities gives advice and recommendation that people follow,” she says on the phone adding that the authorities also have a lot of trust in people.

“We have a very low level of corruption, so there is no reason for authorities to give expert advice that wouldn’t be the best for people and society. And this is the main reason why people trust authorities.”

So when the authorities “recommend” people not leave Stockholm during Easter it’s not regarded as a tip, but as something “You Should Not Do”.

“Now during Easter there is a 90 percent decrease in travel from Stockholm to the Island of Gotland and many of the people above 70 years of age stay at home. We also see that about the same figures have chosen not to go to the mountains for skiing,” the foreign minister adds.

From her perspective the key strategy is that the measures should be sustainable over time.
“We don’t believe you can have a lockdown for a long period of time. We can already see that other countries now are preparing to get out of “lock down” even though the virus is still there.“
She explains that the Swedish strategy is a combination of recommendations and legally binding measures using more carrots than sticks. For example, the government has also tried to make it easier for people that stay at home when they are sick by taking away the qualifying time for sick leave, a reform that costs the government approximately £4 million a day.

And despite the fuss in international media, Ann Linde adds, the Swedish goal is not any different from other countries’.

“Sweden shares the same goals regarding the outbreak as all other countries – to save lives and protect public health. We work with the same challenges as other countries – the scale and speed of the virus, and the pressure on the national health system. We use similar tools as most countries do – promoting social distancing, protecting the vulnerable people and risk groups, carrying out testing, and strengthening our health system to cope with the pandemic.”

The recent comments by the US president Donald Trump that Sweden is suffering with the goal of “herd immunity” she calls “absolutely false”.

“It is a myth,” she continues, “that life goes on as normal in Sweden. Many people stay at home and have stopped travelling. Many businesses are collapsing. Unemployment is expected to rise dramatically. There are a wide range of new regulations and recommendations that affect the whole society, also the private lives of people. There is no full lockdown of Sweden, but many parts of the Swedish society have shut down. Many Swedes are severely affected.”

TIJ asks Minister Linde, “With death tolls on the rise is there a point where you would consider changing the strategy like the UK-government did?”

“The death toll is not on the rise at the moment”, she replies. “The curve has flattened. According to the Public Health Agency of Sweden as of yesterday, the number of reported deaths was 793 and the trend was quite stable with the numbers at the same level as the end of last week. No matter how you look it, I’d like to be very clear that each death is tragic. But, that said, measures are regularly being fine-tuned and adjusted. The Government is prepared and ready to quickly implement stricter measures if and where necessary.”

“It’s far too soon to evaluate much at all in any conclusive way. We can see that the strategy of social distancing is working, for the most part, and the health care system is still coping – although it’s a very tough situation, in particularly where the virus has spread the most. And there has been a spread in homes for the aged”.

* * *

After an hour, the bus arrives at Slussen – a major public transportation hub in central Stockholm – which also happens to be a big construction site. The waterfront view is blocked by a huge gold-colored bridge that recently arrived from China in a big hullabaloo. The bridge is 140 meters long and 45 meters wide and will connect the south island of Stockholm, Södermalm to Old Town. The Chinese sailors who brought it didn’t dare to get off in Stockholm in fear they’d contract the virus.

As we see the bridge, I think about the growing discussion in Sweden on whether the voluntary approach will be enough.

During an appearance on the country’s most popular talk show ”Skavlan,” the state epidemiologist Dr Tegnell asked the audience if the best motivation was: ‘If I do this my parents won’t get ill’? Or was it a threat?

Another explanation Dr Tegnell often uses for the Swedish response is that the country has a good track record when it comes to combating contagious diseases, even when there’s not a pandemic: There is no law that forces parents to vaccinate his or her child, though almost everybody does.

The idea behind the voluntary approach to vaccination is similar to the COVID-19 strategy: People are smart and can make good decisions.

“You can close everything, but it only means you push the problems ahead of you. Because at some point you have to open everything up again, and the virus will still be there”, says Dr Tegnell during the press conference on Monday.

As I get off the bus I tell myself that while the world is upset over the Swedish strategy, too few worry about the draconian legislation many states now adopt.

Where journalists in Serbia are arrested for criticizing their government’s approach and where in many countries everybody is put on de facto house arrest, with prison sentences for those who don’t obey – this scares me more.

I know myself what it is like to be jailed for my journalism.

* * *

A short walk from Slussen takes you to Medborgarplatsen, a famous area for outdoor dining and drinking.

Swedes take their spring pretty seriously. The sun’s out, they go grab a drink at a patio bar, which often offer patrons both infrared heaters and blankets, all in the name of enjoying the “warm” spring weather. Medborgarplatsen’s bars and restaurants are still open. And right now there are enough people to snap a photo that would confirm the censorious media narrative of death-defying Swedes drinking like there is no tomorrow. But a closer look will reveal that every second table is sealed off, and the staff seem to follow the latest advise from the state epidemiologist, to only serve people sitting at tables, not those standing at the bar. And while the music is loud and tables are pretty full, it’s not the mayhem it usually is this time of year.

Another observation: the guests seem more interested in their phones than the beer or company. Every time a COVID-19 patient is admitted, the data is updated on a website run by the Public Health authorities

So if the Swedish strategy really is an experiment, at least it’s not a secret one.

Even if it’s way too early to tell how this will end, a majority of Swedes believe the country can tackle the crisis well, according to a nationwide survey for Novus, a major polling company.

But some statistics do worry Dr Tegnell, he admitted at the latest press conference.

Early on, it was said that Sweden had an advantage because the elderly are put in nursing homes, compared to Italy where families are larger and all live together. The Swedish strategy was “putting a wall around the elderly” but reports are now coming in showing that as many as one third of the elder care homes in Stockholm have had cases of COVID-19. While hospitals may be short of supplies, at many Swedish nursing homes protective gear and equipment is basically non-existent. The trade-union for the elderly care workers “Kommunal” pulled the emergency brake just before Easter and stopped all work with suspected or confirmed infected people until the staff was given appropriate protective gear from their employers.

Another cause of concern is that the virus appears to be hitting immigrant communities in the city’s suburbs the hardest. Areas in northern Stockholm – Rinkeby-Kista and Spånga-Tensta – are overrepresented in the coronavirus statistics. Around two thirds of the population living here were born abroad or born in Sweden with two parents born abroad, according to Stockholm City Council’s official statistics.

The latest figures from the region show that on Monday several parts of Järva in the north was affected. The area around the subway stations Rinkeby and Kista had 238 known cases of the coronavirus. Around the subway stations Spånga and Tensta 144 people were known to be infected. These figures equal 47 versus 37 cases per 10,000 inhabitants, numbers that are far above the average of 13 coronavirus infections for every 10,000 people living in the Stockholm region.
The only Swedish Member of Parliament who lives here in the Järva area, Anders Österberg from the Social Democratic Party, says he raised the alarm early

“Several weeks ago we rang the alarm bell, there was something wrong in Järva. We saw many ambulances coming and picking people and neighbours fell ill. When it struck Järva it struck hard,” MP Österberg told TIJ on the phone.

He says he encouraged the authorities to release specific neighbourhood numbers and not just talk in general terms about “Stockholm”.

Mr Österberg’s explanation of the figures is a combination of overcrowded apartments and people living together in extended families.

“But there are also a lot of people here who cannot work from home. Their businesses are not shut down. So there is a class dimension to this. The people living here drive the busses, work in the supermarkets, clean the hospital floors, and they have to go to work.”

Despite the severe situation in his district, MP Österberg is not in favour of harsher quarantine measures.

“From the government side we say that everyone has their own responsibility and that is also the Swedish tradition, to rely on people. A total lockdown is not the answer and it’s not good for the economy or for older people who want to go for a walk in the forest. “

What he wants to see now is that people living in overcrowded apartments and who belong to a risk group are evacuated immediately.

“There is now a majority for evacuation in the City Hall, so we will be using empty hotels to isolate elders after Easter,” he concludes.

* * *

On the last leg home after a long day working on my boat out in the archipelago, I’m on the subway. It’s pretty empty for a Saturday night.

But just before the automated voice announces “door closing” a group of teenagers squeezes aboard. They tell me that their teacher has prepared for distance-education and if the government calls for a closedown, their school is ready. The teens are joking and laughing, hoping their school will close, and jealous of Danish and Norwegian students that get to stay at home.

I pick up my phone at the ping of an email. It’s from my kids’ swim coach. He says that physical activity is good for the public health and swimming class on Sunday is on as usual. He refers to the epidemiologist Dr Tegnell who says that gyms, swimming facilities and track and field venues will remain open. There are only two changes: The swim club encourages everybody to get changed at home and not use the locker-room, and they tell parents to drop the kids at the pool and then wait outside until practice is over.

It’s a pragmatic response to a virus that looks like it will be around for a while.

The next e-mail is from the headmaster of the kindergarten. From April 14 all activities shall be held outside according to the authorities. But, she writes, that’s been the case for weeks since they felt it was the best way to avoid the disease to spread. And since no one dares to send their kid to school or kindergarten with the slightest hint of a runny nose these days, the kids are healthier than ever.

I don’t know if the state epidemiologist would agree that preparing an old wooden boat for the next season is a mandatory task, but there has to be a future to believe in, and when this marathon is over the first thing I want to do is put my boat in the water and harvest the wind.

Martin Schibbye
Martin Schibbye

Martin Schibbye is a Swedish journalist and editor-in-chief for Blankspot.se. He lives in Farsta a suberb in the south of Stockholm with 74 cases of Covid-19 so far. Back in 2012 he was sentenced to 11 years for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia illegally. He was pardoned after 14 months of confinement and published a book in English about the prison experience, “438 Days” (Offside Press 2012). His latest book is about Eritrea: ”The Search for Dawit” (Offside Press 2019).

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