Why is the Swedish response to the Coronavirus so different (slack?) compared to other countries? Is the Swedish government playing with its peoples lives? This is debated not just in Sweden but internationally.

This subject is far away from the intended focus of this blog but as we have so many international readers I thought it could be interesting in trying to explain this from a Swedes view as it has been on the news in many countries. If you are not interested in my thoughts on Corona and state responses, stop reading here. I agree, it’s not at all as fun as beaches, Padel and mountain hikes.

Please note that I am not an Epidemiologist or government crisis expert or anything of the sort. Might be somewhat nerdy though and actually reads magazines such as Science and Wired.
That said as a Swede, living in Spain, I find the current actions of the Swedish government logical during the circumstances. I will evolve on this but first let’s get some common ground on the current situation as we know it. I’ve seen a lot of different “facts” floating around…

What we know

No escape

No country in the western world is trying to stop the outbreak of Corona. There are no government or health organisation that officially declares that the intent is to kill the spread of the Corona virus. We are well past the situation when that was a possibility. All efforts made at this point, no matter how different, is about decreasing the rate of the spread so that the local health care don’t get overwhelmed. The same goes for Sweden. We are all abundantly aware of the Flatten the curve, which is about decreasing the speed of new infections.

Flatten the curve chart during the Corona Virus outbreak
#FlattenTheCurve might become the most well known chart in the century

Please note that its all about the speed and has very little to do about the number of people infected in the long run. The majority of us should therefor be mentally prepared that we will at some point during the following two years become infected. The majority without those nasty life threatening symtoms.

The elixir

Why two years? Well, thats the current most optimistic view before we will have an vaccin against this nasty virus. The approximation is that it will take 1-1,5 year, at best, to get a vaccin approved. Then you need to build/set-up production chains to produce it for the majority of the worlds population.

We could put all our hope for a quick vaccin or a remedy against the worst phases. A potential remedy won’t effect how many people gets infected though. But let’s just mentally accept and prepare that most of us are going to get it at some point in time during the upcoming two years because we won’t be sitting in a quarantine during all that time.

Cov-19 people grinder
We most likely have to go through that nasty Cov-19 grinder during the upcoming two years.

Herd immunity

Sweden has been accused of trying an approach with herd immunity by several international news agencies.
The theory behind herd immunity is that when enough people have gone through the disease and become immune the spread radically decreases in society as a whole. After some time it would kill the outbreak as a whole. At this time the scientists knows too little about both the Corona virus itself, its mutations (yes, Corona viruses tend to mutate. The yearly flu…) and what kind of immunity an earlier infection would give. If it behaves like our yearly flu we most likely will become immune for some time after, but we don’t know for sure.

herd immunity described
Herd immunity described (Wikipedia CC)

The Swedish state epidemiologist has strongly declined that this is their primal goal with the argument that there are too many unknowns (as described above) at this time to have such a strategy. That said, herd immunity is quite likely to become the number one reason that certain countries will bounce back faster than others.

Swedens approach

Before going into the Swedish approach I want to kill off “false news” that has been circulating – Swedens infection rate is as bad as Spain, US or Great Britain and therefore the Swedish government is playing with its populations lives. This is simple not true, at least not when inspecting available public data. Please see the live graph below from ourworldindata.com.

Covid-19 infection rate Europe
Trajectory for COVID-19 Spread – see https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus for more data

As you can see the infection rate for US, Spain and Great Britain is doubling every 2-3 day. The Swedish trajectory is closer to 5. This is vital to understand – Sweden have a lower infection rate than most other European countries. This is a fact. I am personally convinced that if Sweden had the same infection rate curve as the other countries – Sweden would be in strict quarantine as well! You could probably argue that Sweden will get the same type quarantine soon, all depending on the development.

So the question is not really if Sweden is/was too lax in their Corona response but rather how on earth did Sweden get such a curve without strict quarantines, fines and business lockdowns? The answer to that, in my own analysis, is very complex and depends on a lot of different factors.

Swedish traditional dance midsummer
Swedish midsummer dance

Cultural differences

When you look at typical Swedish behaviour some things might be important from an Corona view:

  • They have large “personal space” – e.g. keep large distances to others
  • They stand in line – no pushing, etc
  • They listen to and trust government agencies
  • They tend to follow the law and “good practise”
  • They generally trust other people
  • Highest amount of single house holds in the world – no multiple generations

These are just a few examples of typical Swedish behaviour but it becomes instantly clear that some of those “antisocial” cultural behaviours is very very useful during a pandemic. Keep distance to others – check. Follow government advice – check. Avoid big groups – check. It’s not like the Swedes really have to put in that much effort to abide to recommendations and social distancing. They are already there.

Swedish people waiting for the bus - personal space
Typical bus line in Sweden

If I turn it around and look at the country that I am now living in my view of the culture is somewhat different.

  • Constant socialising in large groups – what, I always have to be near my 94 closest friends
  • Very contact seeking and social – How are you doing?
  • Cheek kisses and small personal spaces
  • Don´t trust the government – corrupt idiots
  • Don´t trust others – my neighbour might steal my bike
  • Don’t follow laws and recommendations – those are for others to follow

I don’t think i need to evolve a lot more on that. Don’t get me wrong, i love Spanish culture, but in the current scenario a lot of things are not beneficial.

Spanish bars – always crowded, friendly and fun!

A good example was that on the same day the Spanish government announced the strict quarantine – lots of people decided to go out and hang in at the bars. Why? Because it was the final day you could go out before the quarantine and it was not in legal effect until the day after. The bars was crowded that evening. Good thinking…

My best guess is therefore that Swedish behaviour, lots of physical space, single households and continuous advices from the government that people abide to so far keeps the Swedish infection rate curve low. Lets hope it stays like that.