Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Opinion

Sweden's non-lockdown didn't work - why not?

  • The number of deaths in Sweden have been much higher compared to other Nordic states (Photo: Matias Larhag)

In an interesting turn of events, before Christmas Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf made a surprising political intervention by lambasting his country's Covid-19 strategy as a failure.

As a result, or in response, a raft of new restrictive measures has now been introduced but the underlying root of the country's struggle has been left unattended.

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  • Sweden's controversial state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnel, at a 2020 press conference (Photo: Wikimedia)

First, it is impractical, if not outright illogical, to label Stockholm's strategy as failure when there is no consensus on what constitutes success.

This is specially so given that the alternative to Swedish strategy has not fared particularly well either.

If opponents of Anders Tegnel [Sweden's state epidemiologist] prefer a lockdown, put differently, it is unclear how that could be labelled as success.

Leaving aside the incompatibility of the Chinese model to the Swedish (or for that matter any liberal democracy) context, the naked fact is that none of the European countries which have imposed lockdown have been able to prevent the outbreak of a second wave.

Nor have they been able to contain it effectively.

Even worse, and in a clear sign of growing anxiety and frustration, pockets of their publics have developed a habit of defying Covid-19 related restrictions.

Much higher death toll

Sure, number of deaths in Sweden have been much higher compared to other Nordic states.

Given that the vast majority of casualties is concentrated in the 70+ age group, however, such a regrettable outcome has very little to do with the strategy and more to do with politics; that is, the ill-implemented privatisation of social care system in the country.

Had Stockholm imposed a tough lockdown, the death toll amongst the elderly would have still been high.

Barring the non-option of leaving them on their own, a lockdown would have not prevented the private caregivers from visiting elderly care houses.

Privatisation means that nurses hired by private companies - as opposed to in-house caregivers - are responsible for well being of a number of individuals/patients at multiple locations or residences.

Secondly, imposing a lockdown would have not been an easy process. Unlike other democracies, and perhaps partly due to its peculiar sense of exceptionalism, crisis decision making in Sweden is a messy affair whereby governments need the parliament's approval to impose emergency measures.

This so-called 'collective style of decision making' is a time-consuming affair that not only obstructs swift decision-making but could also be held hostage to political interests of parties.

As such, and given that decision making in the Swedish context is an expert-driven process, it is reasonable to suspect that the government would have caused fury both amongst the public and the opposition parties in the parliament had it called for a tough lockdown and shown disregard for the excerpt advice.

In other words, its current critiques would have accused it of jeopardising the country's political system.

Instead of undermining Tegnel's public standing and turning him into a perfect scapegoat for the Swedish politicians, Swedish king would have been better advised to use his annual Christmas interview to call for unity of purpose and shed light on the political roots of the country's response.

This is so, because it is not the strategy that has failed.

Rather, it is the country's politics that has failed the strategy. Of course, it would have been wiser to recommend wearing masks from day one and enforce social distancing with vigour. However, it is not at all certain that a full lockdown would have made much of a difference.

Looking ahead, crisis decision-making must be reformed. Lengthy and potentially politicised deliberations at times of crisis does next to nothing to protect, let alone advance, national interests.

There is also an urgent need to critically examine, and draw lessons from, the blind enthusiasm with which parties from left and right championed the privatisation of social care without giving much considerations to the consequences of such undertaking.

Finally, there must be a thorough public inquiry into the conduct of private care providers and their abysmal failure to modify their modus operandi in response to the outbreak of Covid-19.

After all, these companies are supposed to have healthcare professionals on their management boards who must know a thing or two about the risks of their staffs' potential role as super-spreaders.

To this end, it is of paramount importance to investigate the bidding processes and whether or not there have been irregularities in awarding contracts.

Author bio

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

Disclaimer

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

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