As Deaths Soar, Doubts Grow Over Sweden's Exceptional COVID-19 Response


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LONDON - As much of Europe remains under a strict lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden has stood out in taking a very different approach.

The government has refused to impose strict new lockdown laws, and its people have been allowed to work and travel.

In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed that Sweden may have gotten things right, as the outbreak tore through Italy, Spain, France and Britain. However, infection rates are increasing rapidly, and there have been close to 4,000 deaths, prompting growing nervousness in the country.

Unlike other cities across Europe, the streets of Stockholm have remained busy, as shops, cafés, restaurants and nightclubs have stayed open, along with primary schools and most services such hairdressing.

The government has asked citizens to take individual responsibility for social distancing, while people over 70 and anyone feeling ill are asked to stay home.

The theory behind Sweden's approach is sustainability, says the government's chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who has become something of a popular cult figure among many Swedes through his numerous television appearances.

"I think the Swedish strategy has proven to be sustainable," he said. "I mean, we get figures now that people are actually increasing their adherence to our advice, not decreasing. It is very difficult to stop having very strict measures. I mean, that's the signals we get from all of these countries. It's very difficult to stop a lockdown."

Opinion is divided on whether Sweden's unusual approach is working. Scott Rosenstein, director of the global health program at the Eurasia Group, said the trajectory of deaths and infections suggests the government has made mistakes.

"Ultimately, the death toll in Sweden right now is the highest per capita in Europe as of this week. And the experience of their neighbors hasn't been as severe. So, I think if you look at Denmark, which has taken a very different approach - a very strong lockdown early - they really got out in front of their outbreak. They have been testing significantly more than Sweden. They've been able to relieve a lot of their social distancing quicker," Rosenstein told VOA.

Almost half of Sweden's deaths have occurred in care homes. Outside Sweden's Parliament, victims' relatives have made a memorial to loved ones who they say died "without help."

"Why didn't they protect the citizens by closing the borders, by protecting the people against the epidemic?" asked Mirrey Gourie, who set up the memorial after losing her father to COVID-19.

Ultimately, it is too early to tell who has gotten it right, argues Dr. Peter Drobac, a global health analyst at Britain's Oxford University.

"We're relying on some historical experience, some modeling. But to an extent, all countries are kind of experimenting with different methods of safely opening up. And I think we have to be very careful in trying to learn from one another."

The economic damage in Sweden could be less severe than in other European states, but the human toll may far exceed neighboring countries. The debate over such trade-offs will likely intensify as the pandemic continues to take lives.