STOCKHOLM – The scene at Norrsken House Stockholm, a coworking space, exudes radical normality: young hipsters in turtlenecks frolic in the corner of the café. Others chatted freely, sometimes quite close together, in cozy meeting rooms. The face masks were nowhere to be seen.
It looked like a lot last January, before the spread of Covid-19 in Europe, but it was actually last week, as many European nations were tightening restrictions amid a wave of new coronavirus cases. In Sweden, new infections, while slightly increasing, remained surprisingly low.
“I have potentially hundreds of tiny interactions when I work here,”
Normality has never been more controversial than in Sweden. Almost alone in the Western world, the Swedes refused to impose a coronavirus lockdown last spring as the country’s top health officials argued that limited restrictions were sufficient and would have better protected against economic collapse.
It was an approach that turned Sweden into an unlikely ideological lightning rod. Many scientists have accused him of a spike in deaths, although many libertarian critics of the blocs have portrayed Sweden as a model. During a recent Senate hearing in Washington, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the leading infectious disease specialist in the United States, and Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, clashed in anger over Sweden.
For their part, the Swedes admit they have made some mistakes, particularly in nursing homes, where the death toll has been staggering. Indeed, comparative analyzes show that Sweden’s death rate at the height of the pandemic in the spring far exceeded rates in neighboring countries and was more sustained. (Others point out that Sweden’s overall death rate is comparable to that of the United States.)
Now, though, the question is whether the country’s current low workload, compared to sharp increases elsewhere, proves to have found a sustainable balance, something all Western countries are looking for eight months into the pandemic – or whether recent numbers are just a temporary aberration.
“It looks good,” said Anders Tegnell, a Swedish state epidemiologist, who gained worldwide fame and notoriety for keeping Sweden off the bat in March.
With a population of 10.1 million, Sweden has averaged just over 200 new cases per day for several weeks, although the number has jumped to around 380 in recent days. The per capita rate is far lower than neighboring Denmark or the Netherlands (if higher than the negligible rates in Norway and Finland). Sweden is also doing much better, for the moment, than Spain, with 10,000 cases per day, and France, with 12,000.
In response to the recent outbreaks, many European countries are imposing new restrictions. But political leaders, anxious to avoid unpopular and economically disastrous blockades, rely primarily on social distancing measures, as they try to maintain some degree of normality, with schools, shops, restaurants and even bars open.
In essence, some experts say, they are quietly adopting the Swedish approach.
“Today, all European countries more or less follow the Swedish model, combined with the testing, traceability and quarantine procedures introduced by the Germans, but no one will admit it,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health, in Geneva. “Instead, they made a caricature of Swedish strategy. Almost everyone called it inhumane and a failure. “
In the spring, when other nations were cracking down, Sweden was often vilified for following its own path. Its borders remained open, as did the bars, restaurants and schools. Hair salons, yoga studios, gyms, and even some cinemas have remained open, as have public transport and parks.
Gatherings of over 50 people were banned, museums closed and sporting events canceled. But that was the scope of the measures, with officials saying they would trust Swedes’ common sense to keep their distance and wash their hands.
Mr. Flahault praised the Swedish government for that part of its approach. “The Swedes have self-blocked,” he said. “They trusted their people to independently apply social distancing measures without punishing them.”
But Mr. Flahault also warned of what he called a serious flaw in the Swedish approach. “They still don’t wear masks,” he said. “This can be a major drawback in the Swedish strategy if the masks prove effective and fundamental in fighting the pandemic.”
Sweden could also enjoy a break between infection spikes. The public face of the country’s coronavirus policies, Mr. Tegnell, agrees, saying the numbers can always go up, as they just did. That said, however, “Sweden has gone from being one of the countries in Europe with the most prevalent to one that has some of the few cases in Europe,” he said in a recent interview.
Mr Tegnell said Sweden will in some cases prescribe face masks, particularly to contain local outbreaks. And in a break from the past, he told the newspaper Dagens Nyheter that he would now also consider limited local restrictions on circulation and school closures.
But he still insists that distance provided better protection overall than masks, which, according to him, could give people a false sense of security.
Mr Tegnell pointed out, as he has done many times in the past, that Sweden did not set out to achieve “herd immunity”, calling it a “myth that has been created”.
“We are happy that the number of cases is decreasing rapidly and we believe that immunity in the population has something to do with this,” he said in the interview, conducted just before the number of cases increased slightly. “And we hope that the immunity of the population will help us reflect this fall with low-level cases.”
When the pandemic occurred in the spring, Norrsken House Stockholm, in a former tram depot, looked abandoned, as many of its 450 members remained home. But in mid-August the place looked normal. People mixed with no visible worries or fears. Some minimal precautions were taken: Workstations designed for six were limited to four; hand sanitizer stations were everywhere; and most people withdrew socially.
“These restrictions will be in place for a while, I think, but it doesn’t seem like a big restriction in your daily life,” said Feeney, the coach. “There is a burning desire to want to get back to normal. Eventually people think, ‘OK, we can do it again now. We’ve got through this.'”
The changes are equally evident in Swedish hospitals. To the In the spring, at the Sodersjukhuset hospital in Stockholm, ambulances constantly unloaded patients with Covid-19. “In April almost everyone seemed to have Covid,” said Karin Hildebrand, a cardiologist in the intensive care unit. “Those brought for heart failure were also positive.”
Now, Dr. Hildebrand was enjoying a cappuccino before her shift, casually greeting colleagues who seemed equally relaxed. “We no longer see any positive Covid patients,” he said. “How many are in our ward now?” called his colleague. “One,” he replied. Dr. Hildebrand smiled.
She was disturbed during the first wave by how many of her friends were negligent about social distances and other precautions. In April, she went to national television to warn Swedes that the situation was serious.
Now, however, Dr Hildebrand says Sweden is well prepared for a potential renaissance. “We have changed behavior. I don’t see anyone shaking hands, for example, “he said. Recently, she went on vacation to northern Sweden, climbing and hiking.” Life is back to normal. But of course there can be a second wave. “
Some experts believe Sweden is now almost completely in control of the virus.
“There are indications that the Swedes have acquired an element of immunity to the disease, which, along with everything they are doing to prevent the spread of the infection, is sufficient to maintain the disease,” Kim Sneppen, professor of biocomplexity at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen said in an interview.
He stressed that the country could have avoided the high death toll at the start, but said Sweden has regained control since mid-April when deaths have steadily declined.
Although the Swedes are far from achieving herd immunity, he said, “we can conclude that their rules of social distancing have proved essential.”
Christina Anderson contributed to the report.