People dine in a restaurant on March 27, 2020 in Stockholm during the the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
Sweden’s decision to avoid a strict lockdown like its European neighbors drew global attention and was not without controversy.
But now the country is past the peak of infections, its chief epidemiologist says, and there are few actions he would have done differently — apart from how elderly care homes were prepared for the outbreak.
“I don’t think anybody who is really thinking that much about this, is really sure about any strategy, because we’re all doing something that nobody did before,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who has led the country’s coronavirus response, told CNBC Thursday.
“On the other hand, it looks like it’s going to work out. We’re clearly past the peak in Stockholm and our health care (system) has been able to handle it, we have extra beds in the hospitals and everybody has been treated that needs to be treated, even non-Covid patients have been able to get treatment.”
He said Sweden’s experience had shown that “we can keep our schools open.” “That has not caused any major problems at all — it has not caused any problems that we can see. We can keep our society reasonably open, without huge effects.”
Unlike its Scandinavian neighbors in Norway, Denmark and Finland, Sweden went its own way as the coronavirus pandemic manifested itself in Europe in late February and early March (though new studies show it could have been circulating in the continent in late 2019).
While the countries around it closed borders, schools, bars and businesses and imposed strict social-distancing measures, in contrast, Sweden’s government — acting on advice from its Public Health Agency and Anders Tegnell, as well as a group of other experts — opted for mostly advisory measures.
Tegnell said that the number of admissions to Sweden’s hospitals is “clearly falling,” as well as the number of deaths. As of Thursday, Sweden has 23,918 confirmed cases of the virus and has recorded 2,941 deaths, with over half the deaths occurring in elderly care homes. Sweden conducts around 30,000 coronavirus tests per week.
“Of course, there is a huge regret over the fatalities that we’ve had but we’re not really clear how that could have been avoided. We know that these (elderly care home) settings are very vulnerable in this kind of situation and we’re not sure that doing something different would make a huge difference to that,” Tegnell said.
Asked if Sweden would follow the same policy in any future outbreak, he answered “to a great extent, yes.”
“Now we know things that we could do better, for sure, but on the whole I think we would go down the same route,” although he conceded that more work could have been done to prevent outbreaks in Sweden’s care homes.
Controversy over the country’s more laissez-faire approach to the virus has centered around the fact that allowing a virus to spread among a population can enable “herd immunity” (although research is still being conducted into immunity post-infection), but such a strategy does put vulnerable people at risk.
Sweden’s government advocated working from home if at all possible and to avoid nonessential travel. Meanwhile, restaurants, bars and cafes remained open but offered table service only, and gatherings of more than 50 people were banned. Yet schools for under 16-year-olds have remained open. In sum, life in Sweden has carried on as before, but at a gentler pace.
Comparing Sweden’s experience to other countries in Europe is tricky, given the differing testing regimes, degrees of restrictions on social interaction, and demographics.
Roughly speaking, however, with a population of around 10 million, Sweden has seen more confirmed cases and deaths than its closest neighbors of Denmark (10,281 cases and 506 deaths), Norway (7,996 cases and 216 deaths) and Finland (5,573 cases and 252 deaths) which have smaller populations of around 5 million people each.
“We’re always compared with other countries but you have to remember there’s a lot of other countries in Europe that had huge lockdowns and much worse situations than Sweden,” Tegnell said, pointing to Belgium which has a similar population to Sweden and has seen 50,781 cases and 8,339 deaths so far, despite a strict lockdown.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) told CNBC earlier this week that European-wide coronavirus data it had collected showed that there had been “no substantial change” in the number of coronavirus infections being recorded in Sweden, the U.K., Poland and Romania.
Tegnell said he understood why other countries had imposed strict lockdowns. In the U.K., restrictions were largely aimed at preventing an already-stretched national health service from being overwhelmed.
“But I have a harder time understanding those countries that closed down before they even had cases, and I think that’s going to be discussed a lot, how much that helped. But if you had a health-care system that was not prepared at all and you need time to do something about it then yes, I can see a point to it. In Sweden, the health-care system could always develop ahead of the curve (the rise in infections) and that certainly helped us.”