Thursday, January 21, 2021

As deaths rise, Sweden reverses lighthearted approach to contain rising infections

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After taking arguably the world’s softest approach to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden is tightening the screws.

Starting Sunday, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s government can fine and shut down businesses that violate restrictions such as visitor caps, as well as restrict private gatherings, under a new law that runs until ‘in September. It’s a break from relying primarily on recommendations and trusting people to follow them. With the healthcare system under increasing strain and deaths on the rise, some say it was too little too late.

“As in many places, Sweden learned about the virus the hard way,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health in Boston, who has been following the country’s strategy closely. . “Sweden was too slow. There was plenty of evidence from the spring, in Sweden and elsewhere, of what to expect in the fall and winter if policy was not changed and these are the consequences.

While pursuing its unusual strategy, Sweden questioned the decisions of other countries to lock down. Its journey towards mandatory restrictions has left the Nordic country with more than three times as many virus deaths per capita than Denmark, the closest regional peer in terms of deaths. Confidence in the government has weakened and has been compounded by senior officials – including Lofven himself – flouting their own rules. Even King Carl XVI Gustaf called the nation’s response a failure.

As in the rest of the world, the debate in the era of the pandemic has centered on the balance between people’s health and the fallout from shutting down economies. The Swedish economy has held up better than most, as deaths now exceed 9,600 people.

Senior epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who in June called countries that have opted for strict lockdowns “madSaid the pandemic law should not be seen as a turnaround, but rather an extension of what has already been done.

“We still work mainly with voluntary measures for individuals,” he said in an interview. “And we mainly work with the regulation of different types of agencies, different types of stores where regulations are needed for them to meet their obligations.”

One of Tegnell’s main detractors, Professor Bjorn Olsen of Uppsala University, said that “reality has caught up with the Public Health Agency”.

“They have been extremely stubborn in clinging to the strategy without listening or doing external analysis,” he said.

Anders Litzen lost his 71-year-old mother Agnetha in the spring, sitting by his side for her final 16 hours in full protective gear. The 42-year-old man, who lost his job due to the pandemic and started working as a runner in a hospital, said the government’s communication was too vague.

“My mom, and I think most Swedes, didn’t really take it seriously,” Litzen said. “I can’t say what Sweden has done is right or wrong, but from a personal point of view I think when you want to send a message it has to be clear and strong.”

Lofven and health officials, faced with early criticism, including from President Donald Trump, admitted in April that the country had failed to protect its elderly in nursing homes. A government appointed commission recently reached a similar conclusion.

Sweden has made “good decisions” by adopting tougher measures, Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergency program, told reporters on Monday.

“This is an example of the difficulty of sustaining public health and social measures that are purely determined by the will or determination of the individual to implement those measures,” Ryan said. “It kind of tells us that at the start of 2021 how difficult and demanding this environment is.”

Health versus economy

The Nordic region’s largest economy has weathered the crisis better than most Western countries, with its factories less affected by supply disruptions in the latter part of 2020.

According to SEB AB chief economist Robert Bergqvist, the differences in foreclosure strategies between the Nordic and Baltic countries have been offset by their common reliance on the manufacturing sector, so they have benefited from a resumption of world trade. “When we wrap up 2020, the industry has helped us weather some of the downturns seen in many other countries.”

Low debt levels also enabled Sweden to trigger a fiscal stimulus, supported by the Riksbank’s asset purchase program. While the pandemic law may require further stimulus measures, “from an international perspective Sweden will continue to have very strong central public finances,” Danske Bank said in its Nordic outlook last week.

No leadership

Prime Minister Lofven saw voter confidence erode as criticism of the government’s response mounted. It didn’t help that he was spotted among Christmas shoppers at a shopping mall, his finance minister was caught renting skis at a resort and the senior team official at intervention against the corona virus made a Christmas trip to the Canary Islands. against official guidelines. And the opposition is not pulling the blows.

“The transmission of the infection will not be stopped by a serious tone at a press conference,” main opposition leader Ulf Kristersson said on Monday at a national security conference, criticizing the government for “a lack of leadership, poor preparations and an unclear distribution of responsibilities.”

Support for the Social Democrats fell 2 percentage points to 23%, while Kristersson’s moderate party rose with 23.2% voter support to become Sweden’s largest party in the latest Aftonbladet / Demoskop poll . There is no imminent threat to Lofven’s work given the political system.

The recent response has been “a partial turnaround” that has failed to address what is needed, like prescribing face masks and closing more schools, said Olsen of Uppsala University. Primary schools remain open.

“Now we should be very busy vaccinating, but a lot of effort is put into just keeping a lid on the transmission so that it doesn’t spill over,” Olsen said. “These are constantly half-hearted and lame efforts. What many other countries would have done in this situation would be to shut down completely. “

Sweden had inoculated at least 80,000 people as of January 10, or 0.8% of its population, health authorities said on Tuesday. That’s below Denmark’s 2% total, based on the Bloomberg Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker.

“At this point in the crisis, I think it will be less of a lockdown strategy and more of a vaccine strategy issue,” said SEB’s Bergqvist.

Litzen, who decided to help in the fight against the pandemic after losing her mother, says tighter restrictions should have replaced voluntary recommendations earlier. “When it comes to recommended regulations, it’s very naive to think that an entire country can follow through unless you make it some kind of law.”

–With help from Corinne Gretler and Nick Rigillo.

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