Written by Jamila Zeynalzade (EST Ambassador to Sweden)
More than a year has passed since the viral disease COVID-19 became a problem for the entire world. The virus led to a global pandemic starting in March 2020, and all nations are still struggling, with more than three million deaths worldwide, shrinking economies, and devastated healthcare systems.
Sweden’s strategy against COVID-19 has been debated a lot since the start of the pandemic. While all its neighbours applied strict actions, Sweden opted for non-coercive measures. This, in turn, led to relatively higher numbers in new cases and death rate compared to its neighbours. Domestically, the Government has been criticized for weak policies that failed to protect the elderly and other risk groups (Sveriges Riksdag, 2021). The Swedish Government meant to ‘flatten the curve’ and simultaneously protect the economy. There were neither lockdowns nor mandatory mask-wearing, only a ban on public events of more than eight people and calls on citizens to act “responsibly”. Nevertheless, these calls did not work: in one of his latest addresses to the nation, the Prime Minister claimed that these recommendations had not had the desired effect because the Swedes were not behaving as responsibly as they had before (AFP/The Local, 2020). Nonetheless, keeping all businesses open and expecting the people to comply with recommendations could be ineffective. While the authorities say that their strategy was designed to protect the people, not the economy, the reality shows differently. This article will hence address the key issues with Sweden’s strategy in dealing with the novel coronavirus.
Many opposition actors, including the leader of the Moderate Party Ulf Kristersson, have been strongly critical of how the government handled the pandemic and the poor regulations applied (Larsson, 2021). Kristersson emphasized that it was incomprehensible how the Director-General of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, Dan Eliasson, had gone on holiday abroad over Christmas during the pandemic – without the government’s knowledge. It is an important fact since this agency is responsible for issues concerning civil protection, public safety, emergency management, and civil defence. “If this had happened in other countries, not only the director would have had to resign,” Kristersson stated (Larsson, 2021). Another party leader, Ebba Busch from Christian Democrats, pointed to a lacking leadership as the cause for the high spread and death rate (Larsson, 2021). Despite criticism, there have been many officials, including opposition party members and state officials, like the PM, who disregarded the guidelines and did not refrain themselves from visiting shopping malls or taking unnecessary trips. (Edwards, 2021). These happenings and more could have been the harbinger of a failed strategy and wasted resources, yet the economy, according to the Government, did not suffer too much from the pandemic as it is a case in many other countries.
Independent analysts estimate that the Swedish economy has been pivotal to the Government’s measures. By keeping businesses open, the Government hoped to reduce increasing unemployment and negative economic effects (Savage, 2020). As a result, compared with the EU average, Sweden’s GDP was not as severely affected: it plunged by -2.8%, while the EU average decreased by -6.1% in 2020 (Eurostat, 2021). Nevertheless, Sweden’s unemployment rate remains higher than both the EU average and other Nordic countries. On April 15th 2021, the Government introduced a spring budget of 45 billion SEK, which included 1.8 billion SEK to fight against unemployment, 5.35 billion SEK to tackle COVID-19 and support healthcare, as well as some support mechanisms for public transport, rent subsidy, and others (Regeringskansliet, 2021). However, the budget has received harsh criticism from majority parties with their main concerns being a lack of support to the police, weak retirement pensions, and immigrant integration problems. According to the Moderate Party and the Sweden Democrats, the Government and its allying parties had their priorities wrong (Silverberg, 2021). They pointed to a higher death rate in Sweden and greater unemployment – particularly, long-term unemployment among immigrants – as some of the biggest problems. Overall, these debates seem to be affecting the general elections of 2022, according to politicians and political analysts (Silverberg, 2021).
In the early stages of vaccination, the Government claimed that they had the goal of vaccinating everyone over the age of 18 before midsummer, but the plans have changed. In March 2021, the Minister of Health and Social Affairs stated that Sweden would receive 17.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to achieve this goal, yet the figure has now reduced to 10.9 million doses due to the postponement of deliveries by some vaccine suppliers (Nilsson, 2021). The data in April 2021 showed that only 6.6% of people in Sweden had received both doses of the vaccine, and 15.5% one dose (Jansson, 2021). Subsequently, one month later, these numbers increased to 12.6% and 40.7%, respectively (Folkhalsomyndigheten, 2021). It is worth mentioning that the number of vaccinated with one dose also includes people who have received both doses. According to the Minister of Health and Social Affairs, the country has a complete team of mobilized workers to vaccinate the population as soon as they can (Nilsson, 2021).
Sweden’s strategy against COVID-19 is peculiar, and it is difficult to say whether it is a failure or not. The pandemic has been a challenge for all countries, and the vaccination pace is lower than its transmission. Given the current death rate and weak compliance with recommendations, it is unlikely to see a positive change in the short term. Nevertheless, with increasing vaccination we can expect a gradual normalisation of life in Sweden. Hopefully, the vaccination rate will accelerate, and the world will win the race against the virus.
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Edwards, C. (2021). Why a Swedish official’s trip to the Canary Islands has caused such an outcry. The Local. https://www.thelocal.se/20210105/why-everyone-is-talking-about-this-swedish-officials-trip-to-the-canary-islands/(Accessed 19 Apr 2021)
Eurostat. (2021). Real GDP growth rate – volume. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/tec00115/default/table?lang=en (Accessed 12 May 2021)
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Silverberg, J. (2021). Budgetdebatt i Aktuellt: Kristersson kritisk mot regeringens prioriteringar. SVT. https://www.svt.se/nyheter/inrikes/budgetdebatt-i-aktuellt-andersson-moter-kristersson (Accessed 19 Apr 2021)
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