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Sweden's flag, and Anders Tegnell. Photo by Frankie Fouganthin

Sweden’s shocking Covid-19 mistakes

Living in Australia, and with loved ones in Sweden, it’s hard not to be confronted by the extraordinary differences in the approach of the two nations’ governments to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Australia, after a wobbly start and a period during which I thought our government was giving up without a fight (unmonitored airport arrivals, the cruise ship stuff-up, the happy clapper conference that got the nod), knuckled down to take advantage of its island status and keep infections low – so far. Frankly, I still credit the political nous of state premiers for this result, believing that Morrison’s inept bunglers might well have simply followed the advice of the shouty Murdoch press commentators and let it rip, if the premiers had let them.

But Sweden, from the beginning, has gone the opposite way, staunchly refusing to do much at all about the virus. Indeed, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has gained cult status for his counter-intuitive, counter-science approach, and the right-wing media in the English-speaking world tried to use his example to persuade other governments to follow.

Seeking herd immunity

It is now agonisingly clear that Tegnell was every bit as wrong as he appeared to be from the start. While he claimed he wasn’t seeking “herd immunity” for Sweden, leaked correspondence now demonstrates fairly clearly that this was precisely his goal. The cost is being measured in thousands of lost lives and a massive morbidity bill that will tax Sweden for years to come. Frankly, Sweden may as well have had Donald Trump in charge of its pandemic strategy, for all the good its efforts have achieved.

Tragically for Swedes in general, it seems they have inherited a high degree of trust in their government which, for the most part, does a good job of running the nation in the best interests of the great majority of its people. In this it stands head and shoulders above the Anglophone nations (apart from New Zealand) which make little pretence of governing for anybody other than wealthy corporate donors. This high level of trust, it seems, made Swedes reluctant to believe that their government could have got things so wrong on such a life-and-death issue as the Covid pandemic. In his Christmas address to the nation, however, Swedish King Carl XIV Gustaf declared that the government had failed. It seems many Swedes are beginning to agree.

Two recent articles – one in Foreign Policy magazine and one on the Foreign Policy News website – have attacked the much-vaunted Swedish approach, drilling down into the data and the documents to portray it as a disaster of failed leadership and policy.

Soaring death-rate

The first article, by Kelly Bjorklund, was published on December 22, 2020. Bjorklund wrote: “While countries such as the United States, Brazil, and India have made headlines for recording the highest number of coronavirus-related fatalities, Sweden’s death rate of over 80 per 100,000 people is among Europe’s highest and is around 10 times as great as those of Norway and Finland, and over four times Denmark’s. COVID-19 hospitalizations are now rising faster there than in most European countries, and Sweden is caring for more patients in hospital now than it did at the height of its first wave. By Dec. 21, Sweden had surpassed the United States and all major European countries in its daily confirmed cases per million. Things have gotten so out of control in Sweden that neighboring Norway, for the first time since World War II, put troops on the border to prevent Swedes from crossing over”.

And: “The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nov. 19 report concluded that Sweden fared worst among 35 European countries in multiple coronavirus management metrics including lowering the spread of infection, reducing people’s mobility, and discharging patients from intensive care units”.

The second article, perhaps even more devastating than the first, was written by Keith Begg and appeared on January 3.

According to Begg: “Tegnell the Swedish State Epidemiologist lacks a doctorate in epidemiology. He does not conduct his own research on the subject nor has he been the lead author of an expert-reviewed scientific article since 2009 (before that in 2004) according to Google Scholar. His formal education in epidemiology consists of a one-year long-distance learning course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which he completed over four years”.

“Otherwise, he is a doctor. He often speaks eloquently to the media but seldom refers to scientific studies that others can review when referring to his questionable claims. He has used untruths on recurring occasions, including reports on Sweden’s compliance with infection control councils and the spread of infection in Swedish and Finnish schools. He seldom speaks concretely, but almost always vaguely and airily. Tegnell has been presented with an exceptionally large authority by the Swedish public and the government in an area that he does not control. Many Swedes follow his statements by saying that they ‘trust the research’ or that ‘they listen to the researchers’.”

“Even in early March as many countries scrambled to prepare for the onslaught of an unknown pandemic, Tegnell’s theories and assumptions started to unravel. It became abundantly clear just how out of his depth he was and how extraordinarily little science was involved when calculating his responses,” Begg wrote.

Leaked emails reported in Bjorklund’s article demonstrate that Tegnell deliberately ignored expert advice to lock down Sweden for a four-week period at the start of the pandemic, and to ramp up testing, tracking and quarantining of infected patients. Rejecting this advice he consciously elected to pursue herd immunity, stating in an email that “We probably have a fairly extensive silent spread, which would mean that the first two would probably not work”.

The schools question

Fascinatingly – from the point of view of an Australian who watched Prime Minister Scott Morrison furiously demanding that schools be kept open as the virus appeared to be spreading here in 2020 (while keeping his own kids at home) – Tegnell wrote to his Finnish counterpart that: “One point would be to keep schools open to reach herd immunity more quickly”. Wisely, the Finns rejected the suggestion, arguing that letting children spread the virus by keeping schools open would probably increase the death rate among the elderly by about 10 per cent. Tegnell’s reply? “10 per cent might be worth it?”

Bjorklund reported how Tegnell insisted until late 2020 that Sweden would not suffer severely when the second wave inevitably hit. Herd immunity would protect Sweden, he insisted.

“It didn’t work out that way. Sweden is facing an increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. On Nov. 5, the country reached the grim statistic of 6,000 deaths. In the six weeks since, nearly 2,000 more have died. In the week ending Dec. 18, Sweden registered 479 new deaths, more than Norway has during the entire pandemic,” wrote Bjorklund.

By January 15, Sweden’s total deaths had topped 10,000 and it set a new daily record of 351 deaths.

Our loved ones in Sweden have been relaying, usually with horrified disbelief, the various deadly policy diktats of their government. No masks until recently, and even now only in limited situations and not heartily recommended since the obtuse authorities are still insisting Covid-19 “does not count at as an airborne infection”. Hardly any testing. Hardly any tracing. Advice rather than rules and laws. Health workers not advised to use protective equipment. Aged care workers not advised to stay home if a family member tested positive.

“It almost seems like they want it to spread,” one exasperated relative said, not long ago. And so it seems, now that the government’s reasoning is being exposed.

One imagines that there must be a reckoning, sometime, for all of this.

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