Sweden: Living with coronavirus

Light touch or lagom?

The World Today Published 1 May 2020 Updated 29 March 2021 2 minute READ

Vladislav Kaim

Member, UN Secretary General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, United Nations

Since March, Spain and Italy have witnessed scenes of unbelievable suffering while Germany has surprised the world with an active testing strategy and low mortality. Sweden, however, is a country like no other in Europe. From the onset of the COVID-19 infection, the Swedish authorities, particularly its Public Health Agency, followed a path of rolling out recommendations but not enforcing lockdowns.

As both Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, and Stefan Löfven, its prime minister, emphasized, the conscious acceptance by the population of the need to implement these recommendations was key if stricter measures were to be avoided. The success of such a strategy lies in trust between the population and health experts. Abroad, this strategy is called ‘light touch’ but the Swedish government prefers the word ‘lagom’ which translates as ‘just enough’.

While the government’s approval ratings rallied in the first half of March, higher numbers of infections and deaths compared with neighbouring countries are a cause of concern. At the time of writing, there have been 22,721 cases of COVID-19 registered in Sweden, with 2,769 deaths, far higher than in Denmark or Finland where early lockdowns were imposed.

Twenty-two scientists have signed a letter questioning Tegnell’s models, though he has dismissed the assumptions of the signatories as incorrect. Apart from explaining and defending his strategy in daily briefings, the attention of the authorities is now primarily directed towards elderly care homes. Nearly a third of deaths and even bigger share of cases come from there, and these include both residents and staff.

Contrary to what people in other countries may think of Sweden’s strategy to tackle the pandemic, it is not a paradise without restrictions. Public gatherings of more than 50 people are banned and social distancing of 1.5 metres is enforced, with increased powers granted to the authorities to close establishments in breach of the rules.

For myself, life is a mixed bag. My partner and I try to help local small businesses to remain afloat as their revenue has plunged badly even with no quarantine in place. I cannot commute to my job in Denmark. Children in Sweden are still going to school, but universities are closed, so Lund University where I am studying switched to online learning, including for exams.

Even with Sweden’s ‘just enough’ approach to the pandemic, significant economic damage will not be avoided. During March, the government approved two stimulus packages with an overall price tag of 320 billion Swedish krona (£26 billion). The limits of the stimulus packages will be thoroughly tested. For instance, a week ago Norwegian, the biggest low-cost airline in the Nordics, filed for insolvency in Sweden and Denmark, citing among other reasons insufficient financial support from the government in Stockholm.

The Swedish model, a combination of trusting citizens to observe physical distance and strategic controls, has received support from the World Health Organization. The director of its emergencies programme, Michael J Ryan, has said, ‘If we are to reach a new normal, in many ways Sweden represents a future model.’

Nevertheless, the jury will be out for some time on the Swedish approach to the crisis. The government itself prefers its measures to be judged after a year, by which time it expects Sweden to have avoided further waves of the pandemic while countries that isolated their populations remain vulnerable.