Sweden introduces new and tougher restrictions as infections mount

Parliament House (Riksdagshuset) on the island of Helgeandsholmen in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Jorge Láscar/Wikimedia Commons

By Anna Stjernquist
BU News Service

Last spring, Sweden was one of four countries in the world not to impose a lockdown when the coronavirus struck. But, as a new surge of infections hits the country, the Swedish government is opting for stricter recommendations and a 10 p.m. alcohol curfew. 

The government now limits public gatherings to eight people. Since November 20, bars and restaurants must stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m. before closing at 10:30 p.m. But restaurants only need to remain shut for 30 minutes and some have already found a loophole.

“We have 20 employees that will end up homeless unless we do this. If the government had helped with a support package for restaurants, offering fixed pays and layoffs for all staff, we would have closed tomorrow,” Alexander Dhazi, HR manager at Monky Bar, told the newspaper Aftonbladet.

With few visitors and consumers, restaurants and businesses alike are suffering. In March, 655 companies went bankrupt, the highest number in 10 years. 

In October, the amount of people who were unemployed or looking for work had increased by 45% compared to the same period last year. An overall majority are from the restaurant and service industry.

Worst numbers in Scandinavia 

Despite similar social distancing guidelines, Sweden has far more infections than its Nordic neighbors. Last week Sweden had around 4,000 to 5,000 daily new cases and around 20 deaths per day.

Finland, which has had similar recommendations following its lockdown, has one of the lowest rates in Europe with about 400 new cases every day, and just a few deaths per day. 

Sweden now has 637 deaths per million people compared to 137 in Denmark, 70 in Finland and 59 in Norway.

The Finnish Public Health Agency recommends wearing a mouth mask on public transport or if in self-quarantine. On November 1, Finland too stopped selling alcohol in bars and restaurants after 10 p.m. Restaurants that need to close at 11 p.m. or midnight must stay shut for an hour.

In Sweden, the Public Health Agency website says there is no need to wear a face mask. It states that the coronavirus spreads through large droplets, not aerosols, as top scientists in other countries have said, and recommends keeping a social distance of between three to five feet.

The reasons why the numbers are so different despite now similar recommendations are heavily debated among politicians, researchers and decision-makers. But some point towards the lack of a lockdown. 

“We reacted strong in March and with good timing. Our society understood that this was serious and we got good results. I think that is the reason that Norway now has fewer deaths than in Sweden,” said Frode Forland, chief epidemiologist at the Norwegian Public Health Agency.

“It’s too soon to compare countries”

In response, Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist at the Swedish public health agency said it’s too soon to compare other countries’ approaches to the coronavirus. 

“We had a different start of the virus, with higher initial infections. We now compare ourselves to countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom which had a much more drastic start to the epidemic,” Tegnell told SVT, the Swedish public service television.

He has previously referred to a preliminary scientific paper available through George Mason University Working Papers. The paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, discusses 15 reasons why Sweden has a higher infection rate than its Nordic neighbors.

Some of the reasons are a larger population, more travel to Alpine regions during the spring and a higher proportion of people in elderly care.   

“I think the Nordic neighbors had fewer initial cases and better success with stopping at an early stage. If we look at more southern countries that also had a high initial toll, they experienced a second wave and managed to curb it by tougher restrictions,” infectious disease doctor Johan Nöjd said in an interview following an Uppsala city council meeting.

He added that we have to wait and see what happens. Either the tougher restrictions helped or Sweden may be experiencing a late second wave that will settle in similar ways.

Why did Sweden not go into lockdown?

Despite Sweden being very similar to its Nordic neighbors both politically and legally, it was the only one not to impose a lockdown.

The speed of the pandemic’s onset could have something to do with it. Others said that the Swedish strategy may also be a legal issue, pointing to how it is difficult to impose a lockdown and announce a state of emergency if not in war. 

Protecting the individual’s freedoms and right to movement is a strong tradition and among Sweden’s rights corresponding to America’s First Amendment rights. In April, the Swedish Parliament passed a temporary law that made it possible for the Swedish government to ban public gatherings, shut down shops, restaurants and public transport. 

Johan Hirschfeldt, former president of the Svea Court of Appeal, said the decisions behind the Swedish strategy were cultural, not legal.

“I wouldn’t say that Sweden is different in a crucial way. There are meaningful differences but mainly we use different methods when it comes to virus spread prevention. And we fell back on methods that we have used in earlier crises; to communicate information, advice and recommendations,” Hirschfeldt said.

Such methods, however, may have worked better before digital media. 

“This method relies on people listening to public service radio and watching public service TV,” Hirschfeldt said. To be critical, it is not as easy to get this message across efficiently via digital media.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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