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Swedish exceptionalism has been ended by coronavirus

A sign outside a pub in Stockholm, 26 March 2020: ‘The weight of opinion laid emphasis on the view that Sweden was doing the right thing by refusing to engage in a mass lockdown.’ Photograph: Colm Fulton/Reuters
A sign outside a pub in Stockholm, 26 March 2020: ‘The weight of opinion laid emphasis on the view that Sweden was doing the right thing by refusing to engage in a mass lockdown.’ Photograph: Colm Fulton/Reuters

“Haverist” is a Swedish word meaning “shipwrecked person”. During the course of Sweden’s shambolic response to Covid-19, dissent – whether from epidemiologists or journalists – has often been met with this insult, which implies the critics are fighting a losing battle. It’s telling of the way Sweden has handled its failure.

Through a uniquely slack approach (seen by many as the largely debunked “herd immunity” approach, even if the government denies this), Sweden reached the highest Covid-19 deaths per capita in the world in May. It still circles around the top, with more than 5,200 deaths – five times as many as in Norway, Finland and Denmark combined. After months of a mainly one-sided debate, critical voices are mounting. Even Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, admits to fault. But this has not been enough to change his agency’s strategy, which a majority of Swedes still have confidence in – although that support has waned.

The idea of the “opinion corridor”, which has become infamous in the discussion around Sweden, helps illuminate why the country’s Covid-19 debate has been so flawed. It refers to the narrow range of opinions deemed appropriate in Swedish media. Although not entirely different to other concepts on discourse parameters, the opinion corridor is a particular product of Sweden’s attachment to consensus building. Ask any expat there and they’ll tell you how committed Swedes are to this as an end in itself. They will probably also tell you that going against the grain in Sweden can have real consequences, whether it be social or career costs.

The problems with sticking to a narrow consensus can, for example, be seen in Sweden’s narcotics debate, which is dominated by globally antiquated views. It’s a topic on which neighbouring countries Norway and Denmark demonstrate a much wider and more updated span of perspectives, also reflected in legislation.

The result is a highly cloistered discourse in which a few dozen Swedish media pundits determine what is and isn’t deemed permissible debate: and the idea that Sweden had got it completely wrong on coronavirus was considered anathema. Quickly, the weight of opinion – through analysis in opinion pages, and broadcast and social media – laid emphasis on the view that Sweden was doing the right thing by refusing to engage in a mass lockdown or deploy a test, trace and isolate model. Despite this being totally out of line with the rest of the world, I’ve never received so much ad hominem vitriol from colleagues as I did after I wrote an article for Slate critical of the Swedish model.

At the heart of all this is a national self-image of moral superiority – embodied in the Social Democratic prime minister, Stefan Löfven. Despite the horrendous death toll, Löfven still argues his Covid-19 strategy hasn’t failed.

One peculiar political dynamic within Sweden explains why this view echoed through the walls of the opinion corridor. Most voices in the corridor have a leftist or centre-left perspective, often having earned their progressive bona fides by fighting Sweden’s far right. And, while in other countries it has mainly been the left criticising insubstantial responses to the pandemic, in Sweden the fiercest political critics have been the right.

This can in part be explained by the far-right nationalist Sweden Democrats’ playbook of aggressive opposition to the establishment no matter what, which allowed them to grow to be – at times – the most popular party in polls since 2018. The Sweden Democrats leader, Jimmie Åkesson, was the harshest critic of the Swedish model in a televised debate about the pandemic, again guided by his party’s playbook. That he later, in an interview with tabloid Aftonbladet, compared the strategy to “a massacre” is ironic considering Sweden Democrats’ neo-Nazi roots. But it’s an opportunity Åkesson wouldn’t fail to take advantage of.

In response, most Swedish progressives have instinctively supported the government, while querying certain elements of the strategy – such as the lack of protection in care homes – but leaving the fundamental critique to the right. That they have made it possible for their worst opponent to appear in line with the international consensus is a remarkable act of self-sabotage. Compare this positioning to the US left, where politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been showing solidarity by handing out face masks at Black Lives Matters-protests – face masks that Tegnell still doesn’t officially recommend in public spaces, despite calls from Swedish experts.

This issue of not wearing masks has surely spread not only Covid-19, but fear and racism. For instance, a Chinese exchange student was attacked on Stockholm’s subway and told by the assailants to “take off [his] fucking mask”. And certain immigrant groups have been hit disproportionately hard by Covid-19, while government adviser Johan Giesecke partially explained away the death toll in care homes by reference to “asylum seekers” and refugee care workers who may not have understood the public health information. A nationalism also has flared up within the Swedish left – stubbornly defending its country’s outlier approach – which overlaps with the usual rhetoric of the far right. As a Swedish progressive I’m appalled by this development.

The ostracising of critics has affected the Swedish Covid-19 coverage, which helps explain public opinion and behaviour. By extension, a large proportion of blame for the death toll falls upon a media environment that is too quick to close ranks and defend the status quo. It’s upheld by individuals, some more than others. Some soul-searching is in order for them, and for Sweden as a nation; both into how the country came to embrace this disastrous strategy, but also into how our opinion corridor helped lay its path.

Covid-19 has toppled Swedish exceptionalism. How are we so open-minded with such limited room for divergence? How are we so rational when our Covid-19 strategy is an outlier compared to that of countries with more successful responses based on the same data? There’s no environmentalist teenager to admire here. Just a toxic pride contributing to more than 5,200 dead Swedes, who might otherwise have been saved. Hindsight suggests it’s Sweden’s leadership, its strategy and gatekeepers in the media who are shipwrecked – not the dissenters.

Erik Augustin Palm is a Swedish journalist and TV producer based in Stockholm, Tokyo and Los Angeles.

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