Sweden girds for thousands of deaths amid laxer coronavirus response

Sweden's hands-off approach has drawn international bewilderment as schools, restaurants and cafes have remained open. PHOTO: AFP

STOCKHOLM (BLOOMBERG) - There are signs that the death rate in Sweden is growing faster than elsewhere in Scandinavia, raising pressure on the government to abandon its controversial hands-off approach in tackling Covid-19.

The Swedish experiment has drawn international bewilderment as schools, restaurants and cafes have remained open. And while other countries passed draconian laws restricting movement, Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven relied on the common sense of his fellow citizens to carry his country through the pandemic.

But after a week of sobering data, Mr Lofven now seems to be striking a darker tone. In an interview published on Saturday (April 4) by Dagens Nyheter, he warned that Sweden may be facing "thousands" of coronavirus deaths, and said the crisis is likely to drag on for months rather than weeks. Meanwhile, newspaper Expressen reported that his Social Democrat-led government may be seeking extraordinary powers to bypass parliament and force through a tougher response to the virus.

The number of Swedish deaths rose to 373 on Saturday, up 12 per cent from Friday. That brings the rate per million in Scandinavia's biggest economy to 36, compared with 29 in Denmark and nine in Norway, where much tougher lockdowns are in place.

Sweden's top epidemiologist, Dr Anders Tegnell, says the goal in his country, like everywhere else, is to "flatten the curve" to avoid overwhelming hospitals. As of Thursday, he said that curve is "starting to become somewhat steeper, but overall" remains "fairly flat". But Covid-19 comes with so many unknowns that Sweden's approach has some of its own experts worried.

"They are used to making evidence-based decisions, but that doesn't work for a pandemic like this, where key coordinates are unknown," said Dr Claudia Hanson, a Stockholm-based senior lecturer in global public health.

The history of social isolation as an intelligent response to outbreaks like Covid-19 is compelling.

Roughly a century ago, when the world was dealing with the Spanish flu, two US cities ended up becoming case studies due to their very different approaches. In Philadelphia, the city staged a parade with 200,000 people a week and a half after the first case was identified, and quickly saw a sharp spike in the death rate. In St. Louis, officials imposed draconian social distancing rules; the death rate there was less than half Philadelphia's.

Meanwhile, the economic cost of shutting down an entire society has added another layer to the debate. But with much of the rest of the world going into lockdown, Sweden's efforts to keep its economy open aren't doing much to shield it from recession. In fact, some economists warn Swedish GDP may contract as much as 8 per cent this year, which would represent a far deeper crisis than in 2008-2009.

Sweden has already taken a few steps toward more restrictions. It recently banned gatherings larger than 50, compared with 500 previously. And restaurants can only serve patrons while they're seated at tables, not while standing at bars. Visits to retirement homes for the elderly are banned, and Mr Lofven has made clear stricter instructions may follow.

But it remains a far cry from measures taken elsewhere. In neighbouring Denmark, citizens face hefty fines and even prison sentences for breaking new coronavirus laws. Controversially, the government has also made it easier to expel immigrants as part of the freshly minted legislation.

Mr Lofven has so far sought to play down the role of legislation in shaping Sweden's response.

"We will never be able to legislate everything, we will never be able to ban all harmful actions," Mr Lofven said last week. "We all as individuals must take our responsibility."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.