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16 September 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 9:12am

Masks are rare in Stockholm as residents debate the pros and cons of its non-lockdown

In Sweden, one of Europe's worst-hit countries, some are furious at the decision not to lock down – but many others are pleased to have been spared draconian measures.

By James Savage

As I walk around Stockholm, there is little sign that the Swedish capital was one of the worst-hit cities in Europe in an ongoing pandemic: restaurant tables are spaced a little further apart, and visiting the Royal Palace is an unusually relaxing experience in the absence of foreign tourists. There are markings on the floor at supermarket checkouts, and perspex screens in some taxis, but otherwise life continues as normal.

Masks are notably absent. Sweden’s unflappable chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has said he is unconvinced by the evidence for masks and is not even recommending them, let alone urging legislation to make them compulsory. Instead, he says, Swedes should avoid situations where they get too close to other people.

Tegnell is once again taking Sweden down a different path to most other countries. Sweden did not lock down, instead promoting voluntary measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Public gatherings of more than 50 people were banned, as were visits to care homes for the elderly, and home-working was encouraged; but schools, restaurants, gyms and offices remained open throughout. Many people have tried to keep their distance – most holidays this year have been taken at home, and estate agents report soaring demand for remote Swedish summer cottages – but many others have used their freedom to carry on regardless.

Critics, both at home and abroad, were outraged by the strategy. Tegnell was accused of sacrificing the country’s elderly and vulnerable to achieve herd immunity, but he insisted that his recommendations were more durable and better for overall public health than the yo-yo of lockdowns and reopenings elsewhere.

Six months on from Sweden’s first coronavirus death, more than 5,800 people have died – many more than in Norway, Denmark and Finland. Yet the death toll is also lower, proportionate to population, than in Britain, Spain and Italy, all of which have had lockdowns. Predictions that Sweden’s strategy could lead to intensive care being overwhelmed or that up to 80,000 people would die by early July were wrong by an order of magnitude. The number of confirmed cases started falling at the end of June, and kept declining through July, while in Norway and Denmark the rate has been creeping up. The number of people dying of coronavirus in Sweden peaked in April with 115 deaths in a day, and was in single digits per day by August.

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Overall, there were slightly fewer deaths in Sweden in July than would be expected in a normal year. And while some Swedes remain furious at the authorities’ refusal to use draconian measures to fight the pandemic, many are relieved to have been spared lockdown. An Italian friend in Stockholm, who in March was frightened by Sweden’s seemingly cavalier approach, now says he is pleased he did not have to suffer the privations experienced by his family at home.

Economically, Sweden is faring better than most: its second-quarter contraction of 8.6 per cent looks almost trivial when compared to Britain’s 20.4 per cent, or the EU average of 12.1 per cent. Tegnell’s promise that Sweden’s measures would continue in the long term looks likely to be borne out: schools are open again following the summer break, but office workers have been told that they should try to work from home for the rest of the year. While Norway has started allowing theatres to open for audiences of up to 200 and Finland for unlimited numbers, a 50-person limit remains in place in Sweden, though the government is considering raising it to 500 later in the autumn.

The question now is what happens as the short, warm Swedish summer gives way to the bracing autumn. Will infections spike as people return from their remote summer cabins and begin using public transport again or return to school? Or will the Swedish model show that it is well-suited to fighting a drawn-out pandemic? 

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Read the rest of the “Postcards from Planet Covid” series here

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid