Sweden failed to protect elderly in Covid-19 pandemic, commission finds

A view of the Berga nursing home in Stockholm, on Nov 27, 2020.
A view of the Berga nursing home in Stockholm, on Nov 27, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

STOCKHOLM (REUTERS) - Sweden failed to protect elderly people during the pandemic with the high level of community spread likely the biggest factor as the coronavirus ravaged ill-prepared nursing homes, an initial report by an official commission said on Tuesday (Dec 15).

Sweden's pandemic strategy, shunning lockdowns and masks, has stood out internationally. It left schools, restaurants and businesses largely open while appealing to people to socially distance and maintain good hygiene.

When announced during the spring, the strategy was coupled with a goal to "ring-fence" the elderly from Covid-19. But as deaths mounted, above all at nursing homes, the commission was appointed to assess the response.

In the commission's first findings, it said the overall spread and previously known structural problems within the elderly care system, for which the current and previous governments were ultimately responsible, were to blame for the many deaths.

"These shortcomings meant that elderly care was unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic," the commission said in a statement. "The employees in elderly care were largely left alone to handle the crisis situation."

The strategy has been called reckless and cruel but also won praise from people seeing it as more sustainable and business-friendly. Almost half of Sweden's almost 7,700 deaths have been nursing home residents.

The commission also said measures by the government and governmental agencies to protect the elderly during the spring had come too late. "We also assess that the measures were insufficient in several respects," it added.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has defended the overall strategy but admitted that Sweden failed to shield the elderly, though stressing that health and elderly care are the responsibility of regional authorities and not the central government.

In November, Sweden's Health and Social Care Inspectorate said it had found "serious shortcomings" in elderly care - in only 6 per cent of cases reviewed were nursing home Covid-19 patients given a physical examination by a doctor.

Sweden has suffered many times more deaths per capita than its Nordic neighbours, although fewer than some European countries that opted for lockdowns.