Sweden’s light-hearted approach to handling Covid-19 has been criticized by a commission examining the country’s handling of the pandemic.
Authorities did too little, too late to curb Covid-19 infections, they found.
The early strategy, to avoid closures and measures such as face masks, and only gradually sharpen the curbs, made the country an extremist during the first year of the pandemic, when many countries across Europe chose to impose tougher restrictions.
The report is an indictment of some controversial aspects of Sweden’s strategy in the early stages of the pandemic.
“Sweden’s response to the pandemic has been delayed,” said the commission, which will publish its full assessment next year. “The initial measures were insufficient to stop or even significantly reduce the frequency of infection.”
The almost 1,200-page document states that it seems obvious that the initial measures were lacking, both compared to neighboring countries and in relation to the prevalence of infections.
“Sweden’s handling of the pandemic has been characterized by a slow reaction,” says the Commission.
“The initial disease prevention and control measures were insufficient to stop or even significantly limit the spread of the virus in the country.”
The Commission, set up by the government under pressure from Parliament, also noted that it had taken “far too long” to build up sufficient testing capacity with initially only targeted groups, such as healthcare professionals, being tested.
Authorities relied heavily on voluntary recommendations for people to socially distance and wash their hands, and public places such as schools, restaurants and businesses remained largely open, with the government leaving much of the responsibility to fight the virus to the health authority and its chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell.
Sweden has registered more than 15,000 deaths from coronavirus, many times the per capita level for its Nordic neighbors, which imposed stricter restrictions, but still lower than many countries that locked up hard, such as the United Kingdom.
An early shutdown could have prevented almost 40 percent of Sweden’s deaths from the coronavirus in the first wave, a previous study suggested.
Its pandemic strategy has been controversial at home and abroad. Critics have called it ruthless and cruel, but the approach has also been praised for being more sustainable and business-friendly, and as a model for living with the virus when it becomes endemic.
The restrictions were gradually tightened in later waves by the pandemic before Sweden, together with other western countries, began to abandon curbs after the roll-out of vaccines. Almost all restrictions have now been lifted.
The investigation that investigates the coronavirus control has no legal power other than to publish its results in order to improve Sweden’s ability to handle pandemics and similar situations.
When the second wave hit, Sweden changed tactics and introduced more significant restrictions such as a ban on alcohol sales after 20.00 and capacity restrictions in stores. By the end of October, more than 15,000 people in Sweden had died from Covid-19 infections, or about 145 per 100,000 of the population. It is below the EU average, but triples Denmark’s mortality and almost 10 times Norway’s.
The report stated that Sweden’s healthcare was largely able to meet the demands of the pandemic, mainly thanks to the staff’s efforts. But “that adjustment came at the cost of extreme stress on employees, as well as the postponement or suspension of other health care.” Therefore, the Commission concludes that Sweden “will have to live with the consequences of the pandemic for a long time to come.”
Updated: October 29, 2021, 2:47 p.m.