Sweden should have taken more measures at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the chief epidemiologist of the Public Health Agency, Anders Tegnell, admitted with mortality much higher than the rest of the Nordic neighbors.
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“If we were to face the same disease knowing what we know today, I think we would end up doing something halfway between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did,” Tegnell said in an interview with Swedish public radio station.
Now, Tegnell has publicly admitted for the first time that the strategy is causing too many deaths, although he was unsure whether the solution would have been to take more measures and for longer, all at once or which ones.
“Clearly, there is room for improvement in what we have done in Sweden,” he said. “Sweden is one of the few countries that was closing sectors little by little while the rest of the world started closing large segments of social and economic sectors at one time. The problem is that it is not known which measures have more effect, we will probably know when we start to lift them,” he added.
Sweden has adopted a softer strategy from the start than most European countries, with many general recommendations appealing to individual responsibility and watching out for each other and caring for high-risk groups.
Institutes and universities were closed, but not child-care or schools or restaurants, visits to nursing homes were prohibited and the gatherings of people allowed have been limited to 50.
“It would be nice to know more precisely what should be closed to better prevent the spread of the infection,” Tegnell said.
Sweden has registered 38,589 cases and 4,468 deaths, with a rate of 43.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, much higher than that of the rest of the Nordic neighbors, although below those of the most punished European countries such as Belgium, Spain, United Kingdom, and Italy, according to the count of Johns Hopkins University.
The number of COVID-19 deaths per capita in Sweden was the highest in the world on an average of seven consecutive days until June 2. The country’s rate of 5.29 deaths per million people a day was far higher than that of the United Kingdom, the country with the second highest rate.
What’s more, there is so far limited evidence that Sweden’s decision to keep much of its society running has supported the economy. Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson recently warned that Sweden faces its worst economic crisis since World War II, with GDP slumping to 7% in 2020, roughly as much as the rest of the EU.
The high mortality has provoked criticism of the Swedish strategy, especially outside the country, although the authorities have maintained their line, admitting, nevertheless, the failure to protect the elderly, more than two-thirds of the total deaths.
Annike Linde, Tegnell’s predecessor as chief epidemiologist from 2005 to 2013, said last week that she had initially endorsed the country’s strategy, but had begun to reevaluate her point of view as the virus spread through the elderly population.
“There was no strategy for the elderly, now I understand,” Linde told the Swedish state broadcaster. “I don’t understand how they can stop and say that the level of preparation was good, when in fact it was lousy.”
Sweden would have done better to follow its Nordic neighbors, close its borders and invest in more testing and monitoring, the expert said.
The Swedish Parliament approved in April a temporary emergency law that allows the Executive to close ports, airports, train stations, shopping centers, and restaurants, in addition to redistributing material and medicines without going through the House, but the regulation was never put into force.
The government, however, has begun to worry about apparent missteps to combat the spread of the virus. On Monday Prime Minister Stefan Lofven promised that there would be an investigation into crisis management before the summer.
Some politicians in the Swedish Parliament were quick to comment. Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Swedish Democrats against immigration, tweeted that Tegnell’s comments are “astonishing”.
“For months, critics have been consistently dismissed. Sweden has done everything right, the rest of the world has done it wrong. And now all of a sudden this,” said Akesson.