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Is Sweden crazier than Japan?

Many suspect that Japanese coronovirus infections are under-reported due to a lack of testing, and expect an explosion of cases. Do not forget that Japan experienced some of the earliest cases — January 14 vs January 10 globally according to Worldometers — and yet, the bodies are not piling up in the streets just yet. The Japanese government’s strategy has been clear, although poorly communicated, and rumors about a Tokyo lockdown starting on April 1 are circulating. In any case, there are a few other countries that have taken a less restrictive path, including Sweden, and the Netherlands until recently. The following is an unauthorized translation from an article in the Germany weekly “Der Spiegel”, covering life in Sweden in the face of the virus.

Christian Christensen has been living in Stockholm for 13 years. He likes the city, but he has felt queasy for a few days now when leaving him home. “The streets are much emptier than usual, and most people keep their distance from each other,” he says in a Skype conversation. “However, I still see full restaurants.” During a nightly stroll at the weekend, he passed by lively clubs and bars. “The people stood there and it was crowded as always”.

He can give “only personal impressions”, Christensen attaches importance to this, because after all he is not a medical doctor. The American with Swedish-Danish roots teaches journalism at Stockholm University. However, his impressions make him doubt whether the Swedish strategy for dealing with the corona pandemic is the right one. It could be, he says, that “a risky game with the health of the population” is taking place.

While people are subject to massive restrictions almost everywhere in Europe, the Swedes are taking a different path. They want to maintain as much normalcy as possible even in times of crisis. The British and Dutch, who had hooked up with the Scandinavians until a few days ago, have made a U-turn and have now drastically reduced public life.

In Sweden, much of daily life is still like in pre-corona times: daycare centers are open, school children up to the 9th grade continue to sit together in class and are allowed to romp on playgrounds and sports fields. Parents work as much as possible in the home office, and do not visit elderly relatives, but this is nothing more than good advice — just like the recommendation not to make unnecessary trips and to avoid larger gatherings.

The tone of politicians and authorities is stricter only towards the elderly and those who have previous health problems: they should stay in the house. Distance learning is available for high school and university students.

Curfews as in Italy, France or Spain, are not thought of in Sweden. While in Germany at most two people outside of the immediate family can get together, there is a generous limit in the Nordic country — from Sunday (March 29) onwards, it will be 50 people, reduced from the previous 500. Some theaters therefore performed for up to 499 visitors. However, after public protests, the performances were canceled, and the theaters have now closed.

The other legal rule that was enacted this week stipulates that guests must be seated at tables in all restaurants and bars, so club parties and hanging out in bars are a thing of the past.

The government in Stockholm is sticking to its principle: it is confidently relying on the responsible Swedish citizen.

The Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven gets a lot of approval for his course. According to a survey, 56 percent of Swedes believe that their country will manage the crisis well or very well. Last Sunday evening Löfven addressed his citizens for the first time in a television speech, 80 percent praised him afterwards.

It was a very Swedish appearance that reveals a lot about the mentality of the majority in the country. “Our society is strong,” said Löfven. “The only way” to fight the epidemic is to “tackle the crisis as a society in which everyone takes responsibility for themselves, for others and for our country”.

The decision to continue the ski season despite the corona crisis also fits into this model. Sweden is the only country in Europe where the slopes remain open.

The ski resorts in the country are filling up, especially on Easter, but this year the tourism companies are expecting fewer guests. There are restrictions on the use of closed gondolas, and everyone in the ski buses should keep their distance from each other. In Finland and Norway, the ski season, which usually goes until May, has already ended due to the pandemic.

Johan Giesecke from the Stockholm Karolinska Institute thinks it is right to keep the slopes open, he recommends his compatriots take in a lot of fresh air and exercise. The professor emeritus advises the World Health Organization on infectious diseases and was the top state epidemiologist in Sweden from 1995 to 2005.

Giesecke believes that the infection rate will decrease significantly as early as May. What makes him so sure? “That tells me my gut feeling,” he answers the question in an email. “This is the fifth pandemic in my professional life: AIDS 1982, mad cow disease 1991, Sars 2003, swine flu 2009 and now Covid-19.”

He is not worried that Sweden may have gone in the wrong direction: “Yes, we are on a special path,” explains Giesecke, but the problem is not with the Swedes, but with everyone else. “In almost all EU countries , politicians felt it was necessary to show strength and they introduced a number of restrictions for which there is only a very limited scientific basis.”

Giesecke’s successor Anders Tegnell argues similarly. Sweden’s top epidemic is currently ubiquitous in the country, and he appears at press conferences almost every day. “At the moment we have a stable situation in Sweden,” he said at a performance on Wednesday.

The fact that the corona curves also rise exponentially in the Nordic country does not seem to worry him. According to the Johns Hopkins University census, there are 3069 registered infections in Sweden, 105 people died from Covid-19. Like Giesecke, Tegnell gives his compatriots hope that the viral diseases will decrease in spring and summer — because of the better weather, the worst will be behind them.

Tegnell is currently the most influential person in Sweden. He does not have an elected office, but works for a government agency, the Agency for Public Health. As a “status epidemiologist”, he sets the guidelines according to which the government acts. The gaunt 63-year-old likes to wear slinky sweaters during his performances, his habit underscores the obstinacy of the scientist, who also speaks uncomfortable truths.

He considers the idea that the corona virus can be stopped somehow to be illusory. After the fall he had assumed during the warmer season, the pathogen would return in autumn, he said on Swedish television. “It will then be important how severely the population has been infected by then.” The pandemic could only be stopped “through herd immunity or a combination of immunity and vaccination”, “it is basically the same thing”. With good luck, a vaccine will only be available next year, Tegnell suspects.

He rejects any doubts about his specifications: “We took a close look at the processes in Wuhan, from where there is the most reliable information.” Other countries would rely on data from flu waves, which are less meaningful.

Hospital manager Jouko Vanhala only shakes his head at such statements. “In Sweden everything has to be scientifically proven first,” he says, adding mockingly: “Otherwise the experts fear that Alfred Nobel will turn around in the grave.”

Vanhala is the chief financial officer of the three state clinics in Halland province on the Swedish west coast. On the phone he reports how he assesses the situation in the time of Corona. “Stockholm is now a hotspot for infections,” he says. “I don’t understand why the authorities there don’t keep people from traveling.” In rural areas, such as in the ski areas, medical care is not as good as in the capital.

Even Stockholm needs to be upgraded quickly. There are normally only 90 intensive care beds there; the military is currently building an emergency hospital in the exhibition halls. In its “realistic worst-case scenario”, the Public Health Agency expects 250 corona patients who may need the intensive care unit in the capital. At the height of the epidemic, up to 1,400 intensive care beds would be needed across the country, so far only 500 are available.

Vanhala says: “These are really few compared to many European countries.” In the 1990s, Sweden still had 4,300 intensive care beds, but then too much was saved in healthcare. In order to be prepared for a possible rush of Covid-19 infected people, they set up a treatment tent in front of one of the clinics in Halland. At some point, doctors may only have “triage”, the division of patients according to the severity of their illness.

The Finns did a better job of fighting corona than the Swedes, says Vanhala, who himself came from Finland 40 years ago. “In Helsinki, the government doesn’t take risks, but takes tough measures,” he says.

The Nordic countries are almost always looking for a common line, but as in the EU, everyone is acting for themselves this time.

The Danes were among the first Europeans to close their borders for people from other countries. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, a social democrat like her Stockholm colleague Löfven, warned her compatriots not to go on holiday to the Swedish ski resorts and said: “If we have to wait for definitive evidence to fight Corona, it is my firm belief that it will be too late.”

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Norbert Gehrke

Passionate about strategy & innovation across Asia. At home in Japan. Connector of people & ideas.