Swedish exceptionalism is a concept that Sweden has marketed well, in everything from the arts to pop culture, tech, and science. To be sure, there have been many talented Swedes deserving of international recognition: August Strindberg, Ingmar Bergman, ABBA, Robyn, Ludwig Göransson, the founders of Spotify and Skype, and—of course—Alfred Nobel, just to name a few. Sweden’s generous social welfare system, meanwhile, is often held up by envious American progressives as a model to emulate.
With its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though, Sweden’s upright image has been tarnished. Over the past few weeks, the world has watched as Sweden’s public health agency has largely ignored international scientific consensus on the most efficient and lifesaving response to COVID-19: social distancing. Sweden is the only nation in the group of more economically developed countries taking an almost entirely laissez-faire approach to the pandemic. As a native Swede who has been based in the United States for the past 10 years and recently made a temporary return to my home country, I have found it difficult to experience Sweden’s uniquely incautious yet self-assured response, even if it hasn’t been entirely unpredictable. Sweden’s problematic approach has many layers.
First, it continues to be very difficult to get tested for COVID-19—both for active infection and for antibodies. The Swedish public health agency Folkhälsomyndigheten has restricted testing priority to hospitalized patients and people who work in health or elderly care “with suspected COVID-19.” The agency says that patients experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should not be prioritized for testing until they are hospitalized, and it is not prioritizing testing of potentially asymptomatic health care and elder care workers. Similarly, wearing facial protection, gloves, or any other protective gear in public isn’t recommended either, and has been scorned, even as most aspects of society have remained open with the small exception of some mass gatherings. (Public events for more than 50 people have been banned, and this past weekend saw the first closures of a few nightlife establishments for not respecting social distancing.) That COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically, established months ago, has only recently been reluctantly admitted by the public health agency. Up until then, Sweden’s public health agency denied that this was a factor at all, although international consensus was that it partially drives the pandemic.
Just as the U.S. and most of Europe were tightening restrictions, Swedish bar owners were allowed to open their outside patios earlier than usual. With some minor exceptions, Swedish bars, cafés, restaurants, clubs, and stores remain open to this day. Sweden’s per capita death rate is now among the highest in the world, above the United States and nearly six times as high as some of our Scandinavian neighbors. Total deaths from COVID-19 in Sweden are nearing 2,500, more than all but four American states’.
For the most part, Sweden’s citizens—many of whom are passionate supporters of progressive human rights, immigration policies, feminism, and equality culture, and of the country’s famed teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg—have gone along with policies leading to large-scale death.
Swedes have done the least in Europe to change their movements according to social distancing, anonymized mobility data from Google has shown. When I flew into Sweden earlier this month from Los Angeles (a necessary trip—taken while dressed in mask, gloves, and a Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic”–type faux hazmat suit), it was like arriving in an alternate universe. No screening of any kind took place. There were no pamphlets about COVID-19 precautions. It was like COVID-19 had never left Wuhan, China.
What I quickly noticed during the ride to my Stockholm apartment was how things seemed exactly normal for this time of year. Spring, when the Swede wakes up from his winter depression and goes outside to manically face the sun with closed eyes, was the same as it ever was. No one I could see was minding social distance. Cafés were full to the brim, and people were picnicking in parks, on the same blanket. And within the first few hours back in Stockholm, I saw more handshakes and hugs in public than I had seen in two months in Los Angeles, where I had seen none.
After spending the past decade as a cultural journalist and TV producer in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I have temporarily moved back to Sweden because I want to be close to my 71-year-old mother during this difficult time (all internationally recommended safety precautions more than taken). To witness the differences between my home country and my adopted country has been confusing and infuriating.
There are a number of explanations for Sweden’s unique approach, but they revolve—I think—around a culture of conformity and the self-image of exceptionalism. Prior to my return, the phrase “We’re only following recommendations” had been regurgitated to me for two months by Swedish friends. Susan Sontag once described the Swedish capacity for conformity: “Whenever possible, situations and words are taken at face value.” Often, this has meant listening to experts offering advice for the greater public good. But what happens when the experts are telling people things that could make them sick? Wouldn’t many of the citizens of a nation with such a high education rate revolt over such an outlier response from their government, now proven to result in mass death? The answer to that is no.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has been one of the loudest and most trusted voices among the country’s pandemic response team. He has taken an almost lobotomized detachment in discussing the tragic costs of his response plan and refused to take responsibility for the worst outcomes of that plan, blaming elder care facilities for the deaths that have been the inevitable result of the government’s approach.
“I think to great parts we have been able to achieve what we set out to achieve,” Tegnell recently told the BBC. “What has not worked out very well is our death toll, and that’s very much—I mean, it’s partly due to the strategy, but not really very much. It’s mainly due to that our homes for elderly have not been able to keep the disease out.”
Another prominent public voice has been Johan Giesecke, previously at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, currently an adviser to the Swedish public health agency. Giesecke’s hot takes about the Swedish model border on the absurd, with his interviews sprinkled with quotes like “I’ve got a gut feeling about this” and “Every other country is wrong.” Swedes in general don’t seem troubled by this nonsense; both Tegnell and Giesecke have become very popular.
There have been some voices of reason outside of the official government response. Swedish virologist Lena Einhorn—a staunch critic of Tegnell and Giesecke—explained to the BBC why she wanted the country to start bending the curve—to give the health care system time to develop therapeutics and possibly a vaccine. Joacim Rocklöv, professor in epidemiology at Umeå University, and Anders Jansson, a doctor at Danderyd Hospital, have also been very outspoken critics of the Swedish model. These three were joined by 19 other Swedish experts in a recently published op-ed in Dagens Nyheter titled “The Public Health Agency Has Failed, Now Politicians Must Act.” The op-ed’s authors are in turn only 22 of more than 2,000 Swedish academics who have signed a petition pushing for a change of course. This group has been largely ignored, though, by the institutions that help shape popular opinion in Sweden.
Many Swedish pundits have aggressively defended Sweden’s COVID-19 model. A destructive culture of bullying against any journalist—and even scientists!—critical of Sweden’s official response has developed, where editorial writers standing on self-proclaimed platforms of empathetic ideologies have been the most disdainful. Blinded by a sense of invincibility, writers have trashed Sweden’s experts and any critical debate in a pandemic where people are dying en masse. Jansson recently wrote a striking response to this worrying trend in Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. “I accuse you,” Jansson writes. “You have destroyed the possibility for debate in the most important question facing Sweden since the Second World War, and you are thereby risking people’s lives. You should be ashamed.”
What I haven’t seen much of is rational discussion about why there is such unwavering faith that Sweden’s tiny public health agency could be superior to the collected knowledge about COVID-19 in every other economically developed country. One of the few journalists to ask the critical questions on an ongoing basis has been German TV correspondent Christian Stichler, who in a recent Swedish TV debate said there is a missing streitkultur—debate climate—in the exchanges between journalists and authorities here.
There have also sadly been few news stories about the dead and their families, or stories about all the Swedish health care workers who have risked their lives under the ghastly conditions our authorities have left them with. In recent weeks, there has been more reporting about health care workers and the dead than there was initially.
A handful of writers have provided a few non-trolling critical voices. For instance, Peter Wolodarski, the editor in chief of Sweden’s biggest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, has not bowed to the opinions of many of his own colleagues.
The politics of COVID-19 have felt similarly jumbled. I have seen more correlation between the rhetoric of the Swedish left and Fox News than between the Swedish left and progressive movements internationally. It has been the Swedish left that has fiercely praised the Swedish COVID-19 response with overtones of nationalism. That protests over the lockdowns have popped up across America over the past few weeks is of course not surprising. But it was surprising to see protesters taking to the streets to demand haircuts and burgers with signs that read ”BE LIKE SWEDEN.”
Where have Sweden’s government and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven been in all of this? Löfven held one somber, prerecorded five-minute address to the nation last month. It wasn’t exactly impassioned, and it offered very little in the way of an actual plan to stop the spread of the virus. Löfven has also addressed coronavirus during scattered press briefings.
This has all been shattering for an at least temporarily repatriated expat. During my decade in California, Sweden has functioned as a mental support cushion of safety and reason, especially after the still-hard-to-fathom election of the star of The Apprentice as president of the United States. I’ve held this faith despite Sweden having its own very visible issues with the far-right: The nationalist far-right-wing Sweden Democrats, founded in 1988 by people with neo-Nazi ties, has surged in popularity in the past couple of years, making large parliamentary gains and at times polling higher than any other party in the country.
One explanation for Sweden’s unique COVID-19 response has been the high trust Swedes have had in their government, historically. That trust has started to slip in recent years, with a divergence between those supporting the rising far-right and those more committed to Sweden’s historical values. Löfven was barely able to maintain his position as prime minister after our last election in 2018, and he did so by abandoning even more of Sweden’s famous Social Democratic policies, continuing a rightward trend. The trust in government, though, has returned amid COVID-19. In my view, this has been a way for citizens to project responsibility onto authorities while being let off the hook for their own recklessness.
The Sweden of my youth, meanwhile, was still steered by the idea of folkhemmet (“the people’s home”), developed mainly in the 1930s and 1940s. It offered a safe midway point between socialism and capitalism that attracted many human rights leaders, while avoiding communism’s brutal suppression of individual liberty or the destructive and reckless impoverishment of those deemed “losers” in cutthroat American capitalism. Most of what American progressives romanticize Sweden for—from our generous parental leave to free higher education—has its roots in this.
“The people’s home,” though, is also unfortunately very much connected to the guiding Swedish principle of lagom—just the right amount. What lagom has come to mean in Sweden during COVID-19 is what it usually means: that no one should stick out (paradoxically this is exactly what Sweden is doing internationally). And lagom is in turn tied to a culture of conflict avoidance that can be found in quotidian Swedish life, but also in very unflattering ways throughout history—such as during the Second World War, when the country maintained strict neutrality. There exists in Sweden a cowardly strain of passivism and moral superiority that has echoed since. And here we are again, where the likely preventable deaths of almost 2,500 and counting are lamented as unfortunate, but acceptable.
Many Swedes do reflect critically over Sweden’s COVID-19 response. And increasingly so. Many—but still far too few—respect social distancing to some degree. But this period seems likely to become a historical note as shameful as when Sweden let the Germans march through Norway.
Sweden’s peculiar cultural attributes, the idea of lagom, unbounded trust in state experts, and an internalized sense of exceptionalism have mainly served Sweden well. But in a global crisis, they become a liability. It is still possible that Sweden’s COVID-19 response could be exonerated—say, herd immunity does take effect and Sweden’s death rate is lower than neighboring countries’ at some point down the road. This seems highly unlikely, but still possible. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. There’s no way of knowing how things are going to pan out, and for Sweden alone to gamble on a strategy that already seems to be backfiring spectacularly is cavalier, irresponsible, and supercilious. And perhaps so very Swedish.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to The Gist.
Update, May 6, 2020: This was updated to clarify that the Swedish press has begun to cover those who have died from COVID-19, their families, and health care workers more frequently. It has also been updated to clarify that the prime minister has addressed coronavirus in scattered briefings and that a proportion of Swedes respect social distancing to some degree.