I Live in Sweden. I’m Not Panicking

A restaurant in Stockholm last Friday.  Credit Jonathan Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A restaurant in Stockholm last Friday. Credit Jonathan Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It’s noon here, and from the window of my home office I can see my two daughters playing in the yard at their preschool across the street. I reach for my phone to text my best friend, a nurse who lives in Westport, Conn., to share some family trivia I just discovered. She has been hunkered down in her home with her husband and their two young daughters since March. She’s beginning to wonder what they will lose first — their jobs or their minds.

“Guess what my great-grandmother’s name was? Jósephina Corona. From Italy,” I write. Unlike my friend, I am not forced to stay at home. No, the coronavirus has not spared Sweden. As of Thursday we’ve had over 28,500 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and at least 3,500 people have died.

Leaders around the world have declared war against the coronavirus. But that type of aggressive bombast would not resonate in a nation that has enjoyed two centuries of peace. Instead, our country has opted for a more measured approach, which has drawn attention, even from President Trump, who said, “Sweden did that — the herd.”

Contrary to what many believe, herd immunity isn’t a part of the Swedish strategy. Rather, the idea is to slow the spread of the virus enough to avoid overwhelming the country’s health care system and to mitigate the effects on the economy and people’s lives. Life here has changed, but it hasn’t ground to a halt.

The strategy is largely based on the government trusting the public to follow recommendations on hygiene and social distancing given by the Public Health Agency — not mandatory lockdown. Since we have paid sick leave and are reimbursed for caring for sick children, most of us have an incentive to stay home if we have any Covid-19 symptoms, which is the top recommendation.

Gatherings of over 50 people are banned, but shops, restaurants and gyms are still open. People over the age of 70 have been advised to stay home and limit social contact. High schools and universities have switched to digital classes, but preschools and primary schools remain open, a saving grace for working parents like me.

Sure, people hoarded toilet paper and yeast at first here, too, but we’ve calmed down. Like many, I’m working from home and hardly leave the suburbs. Apart from occasional play dates, our social life is on hold. Instead, we take the children and our dog out for walks in the woods or beaches near our home.

We’ve been urged to limit travel within the country. So we FaceTime with our parents, who live in other cities. My 5-year-old wonders whether she’ll ever see her grandparents again. To her a few months feel like an eternity.

Sweden’s approach differs even from that of our Scandinavian neighbors, where society swiftly closed and many fewer deaths have been reported. Critics argue that our government and the Public Health Agency acted too late and that the strategy has failed, citing the number of dead in relation to the population of just over 10 million.

Officials counter that though many hospitals are under unprecedented stress, the health care system, which is tax-funded and heavily subsidized, still has capacity to care for the sick.

The vast majority of those who have died in Sweden were over the age of 70. Many of them were people living within the elder-care system, even though visits to nursing homes have been banned. Friends whose loved ones have succumbed to the virus are understandably inconsolable.

We still don’t know how fast the coronavirus spreads. But we know that the elder-care system has been struggling for years. Older people living in nursing homes or at home are often looked after by temporary workers who have little or no training. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said that the pandemic has shed a light on that fact.

While other countries are beginning to open up again, the focus here is on adherence over time. On the first sunny spring days of the year, sun-deprived Swedes last month got too cozy in restaurants. Consequently some were shut down for failing to respect guidelines. The rest of us are being nudged along with constant reminders of our personal responsibility.

“I wish I could say the crisis is behind us,” Prime Minister Lofven said on Wednesday, “but we are not there yet.”

The government has pledged to cover all extraordinary costs the public health care system will incur because of the coronavirus pandemic and has bolstered sick-leave reimbursements. It has delivered extensive support packages to buttress the economy, which is heading into recession. I’m starting to see the ramifications of this crisis around me already, with neighbors on furlough and friends who are small-business owners forced to close down or let go of employees.

The statistics we are showered with daily are snapshots. But of what? There are many inconsistencies in how countries measure the spread of infection. With data taken out of context, comparisons between countries are unreliable at this point. We can’t yet see the profound impacts that may follow in the wake of this pandemic.

What is certain is that a majority of Swedes have high confidence in the Public Health Agency and its state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. Our government agencies differ from most countries’ in that they are not micromanaged by the ministers and their transparency is enshrined in the Constitution.

Their recommendations are to be based on facts, and not overshadowed by politicians flexing muscles or aiming for re-election. Swedes around the country tune in to the dry and nuanced daily news conferences, which stand in stark contrast to the erratic ones from the White House.

A majority find the strategy well balanced, polls show. I do as well and hope it proves wise over time. Of course I wonder what could have been done differently to better protect those who are at high risk. Not everybody is able to work from home or practice social isolation.

My friend in Connecticut is starting to panic. Schools there won’t open until September, if then. I, on the other hand, find the recommended restrictions doable for months to come if need be. I worry, too. But not about covering hospital bills if we fall ill or that we’ll have to rush back to work before we’ve recovered. I don’t worry that we’ll have to sell our house if we lose our jobs, because unemployment insurance would keep us afloat.

I don’t stress about my children’s college funds shrinking should the stock markets drop, because even the top universities offer free tuition. And with preschool still open, I don’t worry that my children are too affected by the turmoil, since they have normal routines.

We may or may not get herd immunity anytime soon. We’ll see about a vaccine. In the meantime, what we have are the societies we’ve built and our joint investments in them. That’s another way to look at the potency of the herd.

Maud Cordenius is a journalist.

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