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Vilified Early Over Lax Virus Strategy, Sweden appears to be in control of the scourge



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,”

; said Thom Feeney, a British man who manages the co-working space. “Our working life shouldn’t be reduced to just the screen in front of us,” he said. “Ultimately, we are social animals.”

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.

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.”

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.


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