By Keith Begg
Over the past two weeks, Sweden has recorded the highest spread of Covid in Europe if you exclude the micro-states of Andorra and San Marino. It ranks third in the world after Uruguay and Bahrain. With few restrictions, instead relying mainly on recommendations, and the goodwill of the people the number of patients being treated in Sweden`s intensive care units surpassed the numbers at the height of the second wave peak in January. Currently 392 patientsare being treated in Sweden`s intensive care units during the third wave, compared to 389 during the second.
On Friday April 9, the country’s health minister Lena Hallengren when questioned by the Constitutional Committee (KU) stated that the government never had a formal strategy for handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Hallengren was asked several times by the Committee as to why the Swedish government never had a formal strategy. Members of the Parliament expressed their dismay as to how the Swedish Public Health Authority (FHM) and other agencies could have proceeded without a strategy. One of the unique features of the Swedish approach to the pandemic is that civil service agencies (myndigheter) have enjoyed almost full autonomy and control during the crisis with little interference from the government.
“How can the government run the country in the biggest crisis in modern times without having set a strategy,” Tobias Billström, group leader of the opposition Moderate Party, told TT
The inquiry into the handling of the pandemic was also initiated by Tobias Billström. The Constitutional Committee, the most powerful in the Swedish parliament, is also headed by a Moderate MP, Karin Enström, who held the position of Minister of Defence from 2012 to 2014.
Hallengren in her rebuttal used the examples of Italy, Germany, and France, claiming that it was not unusual for countries to lack a formal Covid strategy using these countries to underpin her argument which no doubt would be strongly rebuked by the leaders of the aforementioned countries.
Hallengren then told the hearing that the government had several Covid goals.
“We should put lives and health first, protect the healthcare system as much as we can, and make sure that they have the resources they need.
“But we have also stressed the importance of securing society’s other important functions. We believe that once this pandemic is over, society should be able to continue to function.”
But the reality has been much different. Sweden has recorded 13,720 deaths, an estimated 160,000 people suffering from long-term covid, with over 370 children suffering from long-term covid sequelae in Stockholm alone. While the death rate has been lower than some other European countries, Sweden has the fourth lowest population density in Europe, and its neighbours Finland and Norway with similar population densities have death rates 8 and 10 times lower than that of Sweden.
Masks are still not mandated, one of only a handful of countries in the world. The mask has become somewhat of a status symbol in Sweden`s corona politics, defiance versus conformity. The vast majority still do not wear them. Those who do are sending clear intentions of disagreement with how the pandemic has been handled in Sweden. The FHM still refuses to implement further restrictions as the number of new cases hits between 8,000 and 9,000 per day. On 4 April, Norwegian media reported that its neighbour Sweden accounted for 75 per cent of all new cases of infection in the Nordic region.
Hallengren is one of several ministers that have been interviewed by the KU regarding the government`s handling of the pandemic. Throughout the hearing she vigorously defended the actions of the Swedish government. Up until Summer of 2020 Sweden had one of the lowest testing rates in the OECD, and very few of the estimated 140,000 winter enthusiasts that took to the Alps in Spring 2020 were tested, traced, or quarantined on their return,
When Hallengren was asked about the government`s and the authorities’ strategy for testing, she fiercely defended the position that limited testing in the beginning was not a sign that herd-immunity was on the agenda.
“There was no idea of having many infected as long as they did not become so ill. It has not been part of the Swedish strategy. Had it been, we could have let go of many of the measures we have introduced,” said Lena Hallengren.
But procured emails have shown that herd-immunity was very much on the agenda of the FHM. Significant amounts of resources were poured into immunity tests for the population during Spring and Summer 2020 at a time when it was difficult for people in Sweden to access PCR tests. But the holy-grail of herd-immunity came crashing down when the number of people found with antibodies in the urban areas of Sweden only reach single digit percentages. And several studies further dented the authorities quest for herd-immunity when it was found that immunity only lasted for between three and six months.
Swedish media has now begun to turn the screw on the policies, predictions, and the decision making of the FHM. On April 13, Swedish Radio reported about how the FHM underestimated the spread of infection in society during Autumn`s second wave. It focused on how Swedish State Epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell and the FHM presented a far rosier picture of the rapid spread of the virus then was actually the case, a situation that critics have highlighted as contributing to the increased spread in society.
On 24 September as cases were skyrocketing, Anders Tegnell at one of the bi-weekly press conferences stated that there is.
“A fairly stable level in most places but a small cautious increase. Not at all as dramatic as you see in many other European countries. But it is slowly but surely going in the wrong direction.”
But the spread of infection had increased substantially, by 35% and not in the “slowly and surely” way that Tegnell had suggested. This was confirmed by the statistics from the FHM, the agency where he holds the position as State Epidemiologist. Tegnell once again critically misjudged the situation by stating that the increase in the number of new cases would stabilize by September. One of the parameters he used for judging this was that according to him Swedes were following the recommendations which turned out to be false.
Surveys from Telia, MSB, and the Novus Public Opinion Institute found that compliance with following the recommendations had in fact worsened and that the deterioration in public adherence had been evident since as early as Summer 2020.
Relying on recommendations has clearly not worked. Over the Easter holidays the traffic from Stockholm to the ski-slopes of Jämtland increased by 959% from the same period in 2020. The region of Uppsala recently made a desperate plea to its residents, to enter a personal lockdown, as the number of cases and patients being treated in the struggling hospitals continue to soar. The desperation is palpable as regions have begun to override the decision making and directives of the FHM.
Tegnell`s advice has been questionable throughout the pandemic, but his deliberate minimizing of the severity of the spread of Covid, has and continues to send mixed messages and wrong signals to the people of Sweden. The question on everyone`s mind is where does Sweden go from here?