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Corona: How successful is the Sonderweg in Sweden?

During the corona crisis, Sweden did a lot differently than most other European countries. Many European countries have tried a harsh lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. Schools, shops, offices, cinemas and restaurants remained closed, and sometimes leaving your own four walls was only possible with official approval. Not so in Sweden. Visits to retirement and nursing homes and events for over fifty people were prohibited here. But day-care centers and schools stayed open, shops anyway, smaller theaters were also able to perform their programs, the clubs could continue to party, there was no obligation to wear a mask. Instead of sanctioned bans, there were recommendations from the government: work in the home office, stay at home if there are signs of illness and otherwise go out into the fresh air.

How Sweden justified its less drastic path

What seems frivolous in an international comparison was repeatedly justified - and also discussed. In addition to Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, it was above all the epidemiologist Anders Tegnell who explained why Sweden chose this route. Firstly, a less drastic course is more effective because it can be held out longer than a complete shutdown of public life. If necessary, the measures taken could be sustained for several years.

Second, the social costs of school and daycare closings were addressed. Young families and children from formerly disadvantaged groups would suffer particularly as a result. One does not want to pay this price, especially since the effect of containing the virus through the school closings is unclear. Third, Tegnell repeatedly thought out loud and publicly that a certain spread of the virus was a prerequisite for basic immunization of the population and thus containment of the virus, without “herd immunity” being the government's declared goal.

Citizens are disciplined

The appeals to the population were successful: data from the Google Mobility Report show a significant decrease in stays at work or the use of public transport. In contrast, the time spent in parks has increased significantly. The recommendations of the government seem to have been followed by Swedish citizens with a similar discipline as the rules in countries with a strict lockdown.

Sweden has used draconian disease control measures in past centuries. Whether it's smallpox or cholera, governments have cracked down on disease containment. Strict quarantine, mandatory vaccinations and vigorous police action have shaped Swedish medical history until the recent past.

However, in line with the establishment and expansion of the welfare state in the 20th century, a special understanding of freedom has developed. In this context, Henrik Berggreen and Lars Tragardh speak of “Swedish state individualism”.

Collective solutions create the freedom of the individual

In the expansion of the Swedish welfare state, collective solutions were repeatedly sought. The goal of all these measures, however, was individual freedom. The aim was to free the individual from their dependencies on family, relatives or the village community through guaranteed health care, pension entitlements, parent-independent study financing. As a result, collective - often state-organized - solutions created the basis for individual freedom.

This orientation goes hand in hand with a public debate culture that is based on consensus and reason. Social trust between people and trust in the state and its institutions are high by international standards. Government recommendations are therefore followed, even if they are not subject to sanctions. However, that does not mean that there was not a controversial debate in Sweden about the course of the government, e.g. regarding the waiver of a mask requirement.

Lots of single households, sparsely populated country

The social distance is comparatively high in Sweden. In an OECD comparison, the country has the highest proportion of single households at 56.6 percent - in Germany it is 41.7 percent. The coexistence of several generations in a household that favored the spread in Italy or Spain is rare in Sweden. In addition, the country is extremely sparsely populated. In Sweden, an average of 25 people live in one square kilometer, about ten times less than in Germany. Only Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö can be considered metropolises.

The results of the Swedish special route so far are ambivalent. Although the foreseeable economic consequences of the crisis are less than those in other European countries, the country has a comparatively high number of corona-related deaths to complain about. At 54 per 100,000 inhabitants, it is more than in Germany, Switzerland, France or the Netherlands; only in Spain and Italy was the death rate higher in July 2020.

Migrants and the elderly die more often than the average

A closer look at the deaths reveals just how unequal the effects of the virus are. The number of deaths is particularly high among people with migration experience and the elderly. In Sweden, too, the former often live tightly packed in the suburbs of large cities. The Stockholm district of Rinkeby symbolizes the mix of cheap living space, a high proportion of migrants and partial withdrawal of the state. These were perfect conditions for the virus to spread. Accordingly, excess mortality is particularly high in such parts of the city. For example, the death toll among Somali immigrants is five times that of the total population.

The fact that the elderly are among the victims of the virus above average is also attributed to the restructuring of the welfare state in Sweden's public debate. Since the 1980s there have been considerable cost savings and restructuring of care for the elderly. Today it is carried out by a large number of private companies that work strictly for profit. It is now well documented that this fragmented structure delayed the dissemination of information and the provision of protective equipment.

In addition, 40 percent of those who provide home care in Stockholm are only precariously employed on the basis of hourly contracts. Many of them did not have the opportunity to follow the advice of the Swedish government and stay at home if they had symptoms. This allowed the virus to spread quickly, especially among the elderly.

Was the special way worth it?

The comparative analysis shows Sweden's handling of the pandemic primarily as a product of the current strategy of the government and its advisors. At the same time, it cannot be separated from the political-cultural dispositions and socio-spatial realities of the country as well as the structure of its welfare state. It will only be possible to judge more precisely at the end of the crisis whether the special route was worth it. The assessment will also depend on whether Sweden can do something about the particular vulnerability of certain social groups to the virus. Not least, the government's ability to adapt its strategy flexibly to changing circumstances as required, which it has demonstrated impressively in the previous phases of the pandemic, is likely to be decisive.

The text was first published in the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung's e-paper series “Democracy in a State of Emergency”.