Coronavirus pandemic

Sweden ponders tougher stance as coronavirus death rate tops neighbours'

A man cleaning and disinfecting a taxi in Stockholm on Thursday, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The number of Swedish deaths rose to 373 yesterday, up by 12 per cent from Friday.
A man cleaning and disinfecting a taxi in Stockholm on Thursday, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The number of Swedish deaths rose to 373 yesterday, up by 12 per cent from Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

STOCKHOLM • 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 the coronavirus.

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 yesterday by Dagens Nyheter, he warned that Sweden may be facing "thousands" of coronavirus deaths, and that the crisis is likely to drag on for months.

Newspaper Expressen reported that his 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 yesterday, up by 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, said the goal 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 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.

A century ago, when the world was dealing with the Spanish flu, two United States cities ended up becoming case studies, owing to their very different approaches. In Philadelphia, the city staged a big parade shortly 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 of Philadelphia's.

The economic cost of shutting down an entire society has added another layer to the debate. But with much of the world under lockdown, Sweden's efforts to keep its economy open will not do much to shield it from recession. Economists warn Swedish gross domestic product may fall by as much as 8 per cent this year.

Sweden has already taken a few steps towards more restrictions. It recently banned gatherings larger than 50. Visits to retirement homes for the elderly are also banned, and Mr Lofven has made clear stricter instructions may follow.

But it remains a far cry from measures elsewhere. In neighbouring Denmark, citizens face fines and even jail for breaking the new laws.

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," he said previously. "We all as individuals must take our responsibility."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 05, 2020, with the headline 'Sweden ponders tougher stance as death rate tops neighbours''. Print Edition | Subscribe