In the face of criticism and incredulity from its European neighbours, Sweden has stuck to its guns on resisting a France or Italy-style lockdown of its 10.2 million citizens to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
The government has advised Swedes to work from home when possible and avoid crowded places like bars and restaurants, but it has stopped short of imposing formal restrictions, urging its citizens to “behave like adults” rather than fining them for leaving their homes without good reason.
By contrast, Sweden’s neighbours – Denmark, Finland and Norway – were among the first European states to impose lockdowns when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Denmark was the second country in Europe to announce the restrictions on March 11. Norway did so a day later, and Finland imposed a ‘staged lockdown’ which included closing its border on March 17.
Sweden’s decision not to follow has already rankled its neighbours A Danish journalist recently said that watching Sweden’s reaction to COVID-19 was “like watching a horror movie”.
It is early in the global pandemic to say whether the lockdowns have been effective, but the death toll from coronavirus in Denmark, Norway and Finland have remained low.
Denmark, a country of 5.6 million people currently has 5,819 cases and 247 deaths, and plans to re-open schools on April 15.
Norway, which has 6,314 cases and 113 deaths, is planning to re-open kindergartens from April 20 and schools a week later. Finland, meanwhile, has seen 2,769 cases and 48 deaths.
The most recent figures suggest that in Sweden, by contrast, the death toll is rising fast.
Nevertheless, the approach has been popular with Swedes, with the ruling Social Democratic Party seeing a bump in the polls since the crisis began.
Stefan Löfven, Sweden’s prime minister, has stressed that far from being COVID-19 denialists, his government are simply following the advice of the country’s health authorities.
The World Health Organisation told Euronews last week that “each country decides what actions to take, based on their own situation and the different stages of the outbreak they are facing.”
Mardin Baban, 36, the executive director of a non-profit in Stockholm, told Euronews that he felt comparing the Swedish approach to that of other countries was unfair.
“I believe all the countries have different conditions to take into consideration. I believe that the Swedish government, alongside the authorities, are taking the necessary precautions,” he said.
That said, Baban – who has worked at home for the past four weeks and instructed all his staff to do the same – has been surprised to see people going about life as normal in Stockholm.
“The other day many restaurants and bars were almost full which was surprising as the authorities have been quite clear in their message telling people to avoid crowded areas,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say that the streets are full, but they are far from empty.”
As for whether the approach is working, the Swedish government has been candid about the fact that things could get worse in Sweden before they get better.
“We have been told to expect deaths to rise in the thousands in weeks to come.”