Monday

18th Jan 2021

Opinion

Sweden did it differently - but is it working?

  • The Swedish government sees this a long term challenge and hence one of its priorities is to ensure that its approach is sustainable (Photo: Jurnej Furman/Flickr)

As countries across the globe continue with their efforts to "flatten the curve" and contain the spread of Covid-19, Sweden has been at odds with rest of the world - including its other Nordic neighbours - by going its own way formulating a response that somewhat defies World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.

At its core, the Swedish model is fulled by the high level of public trust in the government which itself has its root in good governance quantified by high levels transparency and accountability as well as infrequency of political scandals.

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In a uniquely Swedish way, decision-making has been delegated to experts with government simply announcing decisions without politicising the process.

Collective good is placed above party politics and that a true sense of unity, in both action and deed, has been guiding decision-making in spite of real differences of opinions amongst the relevant bodies and actors.

In addition, the nature of Swedish politics, characterised as coalition-led and consensus-based, in conjuncture with its decentralised model of crisis management, has disabled the government from invoking an emergency role and bypassing the parliament.

While this might have slowed down the decision-making process to a certain degree, it has created a true sense of responsibility-sharing in that all parties are involved in both policy articulation and implementation.

This too has effectively eliminated the possibility for politicisation and party politicking.

Above all, however, is the fact that the concept of security in Sweden is based on the notion of human security as opposed to state security.

Briefly put, human security is focused on individual wellbeing and their ability to fulfil their potential within the politically defined borders of a nation.

State security, on the other hand, is concerned with border security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Advocates of the former argue that there cannot be a true sense of security if the public does not feel safe within the geographical confinement of the state regardless of how secure its borders are.

Emotional and mental wellbeing

This is why the Swedish government has given more weight to the overall impact of a lockdown on the emotional and mental wellbeing of the population compared to its counterparts both within and outside the EU.

Equally important, the government's sees this a long term challenge and hence one of its priorities is to ensure that its approach is sustainable.

An individual-centred understanding of security values empowerment as opposed to imposition of law and order. In other words, governments' task is to inform the public and then allow them to make their own decisions.

Equally significant, one must not lose sight of the fact that there does exist a limit on how long and how often a government can impose lockdown; that is, members of the public are likely to disobey such orders should they become lengthy or be used too frequently.

To this end, while the rest of Europe has already exhausted its population patience and thus it will likely find it difficult to impose another round of restrictions should there be a second wave, Stockholm can do so with ease.

From a different angle, Sweden's small and IT-literate population, highly-advanced digital infrastructure, and world class welfare system too have been critical to the state's ability to design its response in the way that it has.

However, these are not unique to Sweden alone. Norway and Denmark too share such similarities.

Yet, they have opted for distinctively different approaches due to their divergent strategic cultures and conceptualisation of security shaped by their different historical experiences and institutional memberships.

Contrary to the widespread assumptions on their commonalities, put differently, Nordic states opposing responses to Covid-19 have shown that there does exist important unit-level dissimilarities amongst them.

Surely, it is too soon to deliver a verdict on the merits of the Swedish model. However, should Stockholm succeed in containing the virus without bringing its economy and social life to a standstill, Sweden will enter the looming economic recession in a much better shape compared to other European countries.

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that many countries around the globe would seek to study and, if possible, emulate its model. Such a prospect, in turn, would constitute a formidable source of soft power for an image-conscious small state keen on taking a normative lead on global stage.

Equally interesting, this will serve as yet another reminder that certain small states do influence global governance; that is, they do not simply follow the lead of larger and more resource-rich nations.

Author bio

Nima Khorrami is a research associate at the Arctic Institute based in Stockholm.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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