Sweden takes softer approach to coronavirus lockdown even as deaths rise

Crowds swarm Stockholm’s waterfront, with some people sipping cocktails in the sun. In much of the world, this sort of gathering would be frowned upon or even banned.

Not in Sweden.

It doesn’t worry Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist and top strategist in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The 63-year-old has become a household name in Sweden, appearing across the media and holding daily briefings outlining the progression of the outbreak with a precise, quiet demeanor.

As countries across Europe have restricted the movement of their citizens, Sweden stands out for what Tegnell calls a “low-scale” approach that “is much more sustainable” over a longer period.

President Donald Trump has suggested that a rising number of COVID-19 deaths indicate Sweden is paying a heavy price for embracing the idea of herd immunity — that is, letting many individuals get sick to build up immunity in the population. He said: “Sweden did that — the herd. They called (it) the herd. Sweden is suffering very, very badly. It’s a way of doing it.”

But Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren recently told The Associated Press: “We have never had a strategy for herd immunity.”

So far, Sweden has banned gatherings larger than 50 people, closed high schools and universities, and urged those over 70 or otherwise at greater risk from the virus to self-isolate.

The softer approach means that schools for younger children, restaurants and most businesses are still open, creating the impression that Swedes are living their lives as usual.

Yet as Johan Klockar watches his son kick a ball around a field during a soccer practice in Stockholm, the 43-year-old financial analyst says it’s not like that. He and his wife work from home and avoid unnecessary outings. They socialize in a very small circle, and limit their son’s contacts to people he sees at school or soccer practice.

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“Society is functioning, but I think it’s quite limited,” Klockar said. “Other than this sort of situation — schools, soccer practice — we basically stay at home.”

He argues that while Sweden might have more infections in the short term, it will not face the risk of a huge infection spike that Denmark might face once its lockdown is lifted.

“I think both Norway and Denmark are now very concerned about how you stop this complete lockdown in a way so you don’t cause this wave to come immediately when you start loosening up,” he said.

He said authorities know that the physical distancing Swedes are engaging in works, because officials have recorded a sudden end to the flu season and to a winter vomiting illness.

Lars Ostergaard, chief consultant and professor at the Department of Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, agrees it is too soon to know which approach is best.

“Every day a person is not being infected because of the strict lockdown, we are a day closer to a cure,” Ostergaard said, underlining the advantage of the Danish approach. But he acknowledges that the long-term consequences of a locked-down community could also be “substantial.”

“There is no right or wrong way,” Ostergaard said. “No one has walked this path before, and only the aftermath will show who made the best decision.”


Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland.

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