Suvi Loponen writes from Gothenburg, providing insight into Sweden’s unusual response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Whereas other countries have locked down their restaurants, towns and cities, life here in Gothenburg, Sweden, seems to continue almost as normal.
“What, you still have seating at your restaurants?!” exclaimed my friend last week when I sent them a picture of a crowded terrace in a trendy Swedish neighbourhood. The fact is, we do not only have seating in our restaurants, but we also have people in them. Social distancing seemed like an unknown concept in this picture, with people sitting right next to each other, enjoying a glass of natural wine accompanied by a slice of pizza. Covid-19 was probably heard a lot in the conversations, but in actions it was invisible. The government had just opened the “terrace season” ahead of the usual date, to provide more seating for the Swedes enjoying the sunshine-filled, crisp spring days. And that they duly did.
The number of people infected by Covid-19 in Sweden currently stands at 3,700, and 110 people have lost their lives to the virus. Despite these numbers being similar to those in the surrounding Nordic countries, the Swedish government believes that the best approach to the crisis is openness, not prohibitions and restrictions. While Finland isolated the whole capital region and Denmark was one of the first to close its borders, Stockholm and the Swedish borders remain open for now. The state epidemiologist Mr. Anders Tegnell has repeated loud and clear that to him, closing borders makes no sense at this stage.
A lot of action has been taken at the local level. In Sweden, local government are providing people with information about the virus, and how to prevent it from spreading on websites and through helplines. Many councils are setting up emergency funds to support to services that are struggling under the crisis, including homecare, hospitality and culture sectors. The immediate financial measures councils have put in place are primarily aimed at small and medium businesses, who can now ask for extended payments periods, lease payment postponement, and rent reductions – as well as emergency counselling.
At the national level, gatherings have now been restricted to 50 people. The previous limit of 500 led to many venues declaring they will host their events, but only take in 499 attendees – whether the same happens with the new rule, is yet to be seen. Again, state epidemiologist Tegnell commented on the restrictions to say that “people find ways around rules”.
Higher education has moved to distance learning and some schools have closed, with full school closures not yet ruled out. Shops, restaurants and other businesses operate in relative normality, even though many have reported a sharp decline in the number of customers and started sales in order to attract more income. Visiting care homes has been banned or restricted and the advice for the over 70-year-olds is to not go out at all. Healthcare professionals have voiced their concerns over whether people will follow the advice to stay home, and whether the healthcare system has the capacity to respond to the growing number of cases. The capital region health system has expressed an especially pressing, immediate need for more intensive care units, and temporary military hospitals have been set up in many cities, including Gothenburg.
Some argue that Sweden’s approach to this crisis is due to the uniquely high level of trust in government and authority. When Prime Minister Stefan Löfven gave his nationwide speech last week, most Swedes agreed with what he said. Which, in essence, was: “use your own judgement in deciding what is sensible now, and what’s not”. This is all Löfven can say, without stepping on the toes of the national healthcare experts, such as Tegnell. The Swedish Government is not allowed to interfere in the businesses of administrative authorities, including the public health agency, Folkhälsomyndigheten. The decisions on future steps taken in Sweden therefore rest almost entirely in the hands of the national health agency and its experts. This will be an interesting story to follow.