For much of the past year, Swedes relied on their own intelligence and self-awareness to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. But today that has all changed with the government imposing special powers to bring a raging wave of infection under control.
Emergency powers adopted by parliament limit private and public gatherings to no more than eight people and gives officials power to order the closure of shopping centres and shops, as well as halt public transport and other assemblies.
The move means Sweden has come some distance since early spring, when it had a non-coercive approach to prevent the spread of the disease. This worked for a time. In the summer, the country’s infection rate was higher than its Nordic neighbours Finland and Norway, but it eschewed the strict lockdowns crippling other European countries.
The Swedish model was held up by some as an example of how to avoid lockdowns and their dire economic consequences. Advocates argued an enlightened population could generally abide by the rules and still socialise, work and function. The pioneer of the strategy, Anders Tegnell, was hailed as a visionary.
Face masks were largely dismissed as unnecessary, schools stayed open and society functioned almost normally. As late as mid-October, there was still no real cause concern. The average daily infection rate was around 1,000, but this was manageable.
Then the days got colder and shorter. People went to work, shopped, ate out and stayed indoors a lot more. A month later, the infection rate shot up to 5,000 a day and it is likely to rise.
With its hands-off approach under pressure and the death toll surging from three to 60 a day, the Swedish government led by Stefan Lofven had to act. Before Christmas, public gatherings of more than eight were banned and people were asked to severely limit socialising. Danes fed up with their own strict lockdown who had flocked to Stockholm were barred, and last month, a one-year ‘pandemic law’ was proposed that hinted at a pending lockdown.
That has since been rushed through Sweden’s parliament and passed on Friday, two months before schedule. Emergency laws come into force on Sunday, giving the government powers to close down shops, gyms and public transport, and making face masks mandatory during rush-hour commuting. Those caught breaking the restrictions will be fined.
What is also apparent is that after a significant dip in infections and deaths reported over Christmas, the government is bracing itself for another wave of Covid-19 that could threaten to overwhelm its health service.
"Swedish people had the discipline, understanding and intelligence to self-impose restrictions so they have not been locked down like in Britain and they've been able to be quite sensible about it," Geert van der Vossen, a Dutchman who moved to Sweden eight years ago, told The National. "But if you look at the numbers, I don't know if Sweden is that successful and it is not one of the best countries in holding the numbers down."
Mr van der Vossen, a mechanical engineer who builds special metal flowers for each of Sweden’s pandemic victims (there have been 9,262 so far), understood that after the drop-off during festive break, the country braced for an increase. “They said in advance that the numbers would be strange because of the way the statistics work and that they have not been putting out data for a number of days.”
The Swedish establishment also faces a public backlash. In his annual Christmas address last month, King Carl XVI Gustaf said the country had failed. “We have a large number who have died and that is terrible. It is something we all have to suffer with,” he said.
His words perhaps reflect that Sweden reported more than 2,000 coronavirus deaths in the past month and 535 in the past week alone. In contrast, Norway has suffered only 465 deaths during the entire pandemic, albeit with half of Sweden’s population.
Trust in senior figures eroded after Mr Lofven had to defend his visit to a shopping centre to buy a Christmas present for his wife, despite Swedish authorities repeatedly urging people to avoid doing so. “I fully understand if people think it’s weird,” Mr Lofven told Swedish broadcaster SVT.
Then came the resignation of Dan Eliasson, who headed the government’s public safety agency that sent out text messages to millions in Sweden urging them not to travel, who quit after it was revealed he went on holiday to Spain’s Canary Islands over Christmas.
While Britain is enduring a horrific wave of infections and deaths, it is in a strict national lockdown, a potential fate that awaits Sweden and other European countries.
“Cleary, we in Britain are not in a wonderful position to be criticising Sweden but it is clear that without people having that trust in the government, and being able to comply with basic rules, irrespective of lockdown, there's going to be problems,” said Dr llan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at the University of London. “There is confusion in terms of what lockdown actually means, but Sweden is definitely moving towards European countries that are locked down.”
He also said the country was caught out by its initial liberal approach. “Sweden was very fortunate. It was during summer when they spend a lot of time outdoors and they had strong advantages in the first lockdown. But then we got into autumn and winter and, of course, people are going to spend more time indoors and less time outdoors. Unfortunately, both for UK and Sweden, that has led to the awful spikes that we're seeing.”
Any post-pandemic inquiry will analyse the words of Sweden’s high-profile chief epidemiologist Ander Tegnell, who appeared to encourage herd immunity and defended Sweden’s lax approach.
He is now preparing the country for hard times ahead. “The Swedish curve has risen more slowly, but is now almost on par with other countries,” he said earlier this week. “Considering what the spread of infection looks like, we'll probably have to reckon with there being a high number of deaths this and next week.”
His comments pave the way for a national lockdown and reinforces that Covid-19 respects neither the liberal nor the authoritarian.