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The odd case of Sweden

Sweden hasn’t imposed a lockdown on its citizens and is instead keeping public spaces, including schools and restaurants, open. This unusual approach has largely led to the number of coronavirus cases in Sweden to plateau and has led many to question whether its citizens will develop greater immunity to the virus.

Unlike most countries in Europe, Sweden hasn’t implemented a country-wide lockdown. Instead, the government has implemented strict social distancing measures and relies on the public to follow these guidelines. Many Swedes are taking on the responsibility with 9 out of 10 reporting they keep a metre away from people at least some of the time, according to a survey by Novus. Citizens are also actively avoiding using public transport to slow the spread of the virus and large numbers are working from home.

Experts say that Sweden’s response may be due to the high level of trust that people put in their government. According to a study in 2012, 60% of Swedes have faith in their government and similar studies in recent years show that these levels of trust have remained fairly stable. Bo Rothstein, a Swedish political scientist at the University of Oxford, suggests this is due to a low degree of corruption. His study argues that Nordic countries are so trusting because there is little government corruption and their excellent welfare systems ensure good education and healthcare. This culture of trust means people are following pandemic guidelines.

Additionally, a large proportion of the Swedish population already work from home. According to the Swedish Internet Foundation, more than two thirds of Swedes already work online from home at least some of the time, which makes it easier to follow social distancing guidelines. People are also more likely to stay off work when sick; Lola Åkerström, an author on Swedish culture, says workers are encouraged to stay home if they have a cold to avoid spreading germs at work and that the country has generous sick pay. It has already been suggested that these living patterns could stem the spread of the virus.

“As for social distancing, Swedes already have that down and naturally gave each other tons of physical space way before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Åkerström said. This is supported by polling firm Novus, who found ten months ago that 7 in 10 Swedes keep a metre away from people at least some of the time. All of these factors provided a basis for the government to decide against a lockdown and instead trust their 10 million citizens to maintain healthy habits.

However, it is unlikely that the ‘Sweden model’ could be implemented in other countries as the success of it is largely due to a cultural basis. The trust that the Swedish have in their government is the one reason that strict social distancing guidelines work; in many countries, where trust is lower, citizens may go against guidelines for their own benefit or because they don’t see them as necessary. For example, less than 40% of Spaniards trust their national government. It also relies heavily on citizens to take personal responsibility and use their own judgement, whereas many citizens of other countries, such as the United States, have put others at risk by actively protesting against the imposed lockdown.

In addition, in countries with poorer welfare states or stricter sick pay laws, many people can’t stay home from work without risking losing their jobs. This is especially true of people with low incomes.

But many experts have expressed alarm at how Sweden is dealing with the pandemic. The country has higher death rates in relation to its population size than anywhere else in Scandinavia. Epidemiologist Claudia Hanson, based at Sweden’s largest medical research facility, has criticised the government’s approach for not being severe enough and was one of the 22 researchers involved in publishing an open letter in a newspaper. In the letter, researchers accused the public health agency of failing. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation has called for Sweden to increase measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Even the Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, admitted that just because the coronavirus is spreading slower in Sweden doesn’t mean they can avoid its worst effects.

In any case, just because Sweden’s approach is different doesn’t mean that it is the only model we should sit up and pay attention to. South Korea was able to flatten its coronavirus curve much quicker than any other country and has one of the lowest mortality rates with only 237 deaths (out of more than 10,000 infected). They were able to stop the spread of the virus by developing the capability to test 12,000 people a day at walk-in test centres and return the results within 24 hours. The country also used contact tracing so alerts could be issued in areas infected people had visited and encouraged people to stay at home.

Similar to Sweden, South Korean residents followed guidelines strictly and life is now slowly returning to normal in the country. If the odd case of Sweden, (and South Korea in comparison), proves anything, it’s that the spread of the virus can only be tackled if people are willing to take responsibility for keeping others safe.

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