The Swedish exception

Living almost normally, but with caution, keeping people aged 70 and over in isolation. And above all, focus on mass immunity to reduce the impact of the disease on society.

The singular path taken by Sweden in the fight against COVID – 19 has been observed with fear and perplexity by the rest of the world since the start of the pandemic. But did the Scandinavian country finally make the right choices?

This is the question which is now essential in view of the health balance of Sweden and the optimism with which this country of 10 million inhabitants are now considering the second wave of contamination next fall.


This is the number of deaths caused by the new coronavirus by 100 000 inhabitants in Sweden, 5 less than in Quebec.

“There is going to be a second wave and Sweden is going to have a high level of immunity to deal with it”, summed up last Friday Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist of the Swedish government and architect of the no strategy -confinement, in the pages of the Financial Times . He estimates that 40% of the population will be immunized by the end of May against SARS-CoV -2 in the city of Stockholm, the region most affected by the disease. “The number of infections is likely to be lower here. But in Finland [le pays voisin], where collective immunity is weaker, will they be forced to impose another closure of society “in the face of this second wave?

Two months after the total containment decreed in several countries of the world, including Quebec, Sweden continues to surprise. Tuesday, the country of Northern Europe indeed exposed a balance sheet of 32 deaths caused by the new coronavirus by 100 000 inhabitants, or 5 less than in Quebec where draconian measures have been adopted since 15 last March to prevent the proliferation of the disease: closure of schools, non-essential shops, bars, restaurants, ban on assembly … which Sweden has not done.

Yes, the Scandinavian country is coping with a number of deaths much higher than that of its two confined close neighbors, Finland and Norway, where COVID – 15 has so far carried less than 5 people by 100 000 inhabitants. But the Swedish count is still lower than in Italy (51 death by 100 000) or in the United Kingdom (49 death by 100 000), where the public authorities have nevertheless opted for strict confinements.

Less severe, but targeted

“There is no Swedish mystery,” says Elisabeth Bladh, a specialist in French-language literature at the University of Gothenburg, another Swedish woman living this struggle from the inside. “The authorities adopted less severe measures than elsewhere, but which ultimately aimed at the same objective of protecting the population. And that, for the moment, seems to be working well. “

In Sweden, life has deviated only a little from its trajectory since the appearance of this new virus. Kindergartens, elementary and high schools remained open – universities and CEGEP equivalents opted for distance education. The terraces are occupied, the shops are frequented and the small cinemas always offer their windows open to the world and to art.

The health authorities recommended to maintain a social distance of two meters between individuals, to practice teleworking as much as possible, to refrain from holding gatherings of more than 50 people. Seniors have been put away to protect their health. Finally, the common areas have been modified to favor the new hygiene rules which now prevail elsewhere in the world, such as recurrent hand washing.

“Of course, we are visiting fewer people,” admits Swedish essayist and journalist Fanny Härgestam, who was joined in Stockholm earlier this week. “Personally, I have spent a lot of family time at home in the past few weeks. I no longer see my parents or my in-laws for fear of contaminating them. At weekends, we spend them a lot outside. And we’ve only taken the metro once since February. “

His confidence in the Swedish strategy remains intact. “At first, I think people were scared because they felt like they weren't doing enough and not fast enough,” she adds. But over time, when the Swedes saw that the hospitals managed to manage the situation rather well without being completely saturated, these fears subsided. “

“Many people here are very happy with this strategy which allows us to lead a more normal life,” adds Fanny Forsberg Lundell, professor in the Department of Romance and Classical Studies at the University of Stockholm. Many parents with young children, like me, are delighted that the schools are open. This creates stability. “

Containment inoperative

According to the latest Swedish statistics, almost three quarters of the victims of COVID – 19 were elderly people living in residences or at home with home care. Over 90% of the 3313 deaths recorded to date were over the age of 70 years.

While acknowledging having reacted with a little slowness to avoid this lethal spiral which struck these elderly people and their places of confinement, the government announced Tuesday the granting of 220 millions in new credits to intensify the struggle in these specific places.

“It is almost useless to try to stop the spread of the virus,” admitted Johan Giesecke, ex-epidemiologist of the Swedish government, in the pages of the daily Svenska Dagbladet last week. “Instead, we need to focus on providing optimal care to victims. Critics have accused Sweden of sacrificing its elders to quickly achieve group immunity. However, it is now clear in many countries that a closure of society does not protect the elderly and frail living in nursing homes, a group that confinement was intended to protect. It also does not reduce the overall death rate from COVID – 19, which is evident when the 'we compare, for example, the experience of the United Kingdom with other European countries', such as Sweden.

Depoliticized management

The uniqueness of Sweden's handling of the crisis is also due to its completely depoliticized nature. In this country, health issues are only apprehended by state scientists whose decision-making power is greater than that of elected officials in the circumstances. Both the government and the opposition parties bow to this governance of scientific experts, while putting their baffles and their political or electoral strategies aside.

“The scientific reading of the situation is the same in Sweden as in other countries of the world,” says Fanny Forsberg Lundell. The government follows the decisions of experts, without being able to infringe on certain freedoms of citizens, including in times of crisis. This is why, too, it can only make recommendations to follow rather than taking more drastic measures. Those who find these measures too lax have imposed themselves a more severe confinement. “

Overall, more than 71% of Swedes support the measures taken by the Folkhälsomyndigheten, the public health authority, to make facing the pandemic. Since the start of this global crisis, confidence in the government of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, a social democrat, has increased considerably, from 19 % at 53 %.

“The Swedes are always very vigilant and try to respect the rules of social distancing,” says journalist Fanny Härgestam. But a recent survey by the Swedish Emergency Measures Agency indicates that this vigilance is now declining. And this, she believes, due to the recent decrease in the number of confirmed cases of contamination in this country, another sign of a strategy decried and which in the end could well become envied.