Crowds swarm Stockholm’s waterfront, with some people sipping cocktails in the sun. In much of the world, this sort of gathering would be frowned upon or even banned.
So far, Sweden has banned gatherings larger than 50 people, closed high schools and universities, and urged those over 70 or otherwise at greater risk from the virus to self-isolate.
The softer approach means that schools for younger children, restaurants and most businesses are still open, creating the impression that Swedes are living their lives as usual.
Yet as Johan Klockar watches his son kick a ball around a field during a soccer practice in Stockholm, the 43-year-old financial analyst says it’s not like that. He and his wife work from home and avoid unnecessary outings. They socialize in a very small circle and limit their son’s contacts to people he sees at school or soccer practice.
“Society is functioning, but I think it’s quite limited,” Klockar said. “Other than this sort of situation — schools, soccer practice — we basically stay at home.”
And while most businesses in Sweden are still operating, the economic cost of the pandemic is already being felt. Last week, 25,350 Swedes registered as unemployed, according to the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce — a larger increase than during the 2008 financial crisis.
In contrast, just across a narrow strip of sea, neighboring Denmark is already talking about reopening society. They imposed a much stricter lockdown four weeks ago, closing borders, schools and businesses. This week, the prime minister said by acting early, Denmark averted the tragedy that struck hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain, and will be ready after Easter for a slow return to normal life that starts with reopening preschools and primary schools.
For weeks, the numbers of COVID-19 cases and fatalities were proportionally similar between Sweden and Denmark, but while the economic results of the strict isolation are being felt in Denmark, Sweden’s mortality rate has reached more than 88 dead per million, compared with around 47 dead per million in Denmark.
Sweden, with a population of 10 million, has registered around 900 deaths, while Denmark, with 5.8 million people, has more than 270 deaths.
Sweden may be paying a heavy price for embracing the idea of herd immunity — that is, letting many individuals get sick to build up immunity in the population.
Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren recently told The Associated Press: “We have never had a strategy for herd immunity.”
Sweden stands out for what Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist and top strategist in the COVID-19 fight, calls a “low-scale” approach that “is much more sustainable” over a longer period.
The 63-year-old has become a household name in Sweden, appearing across the media and holding daily briefings outlining the progression of the outbreak with a precise, quiet demeanor.
He insists that Sweden’s approach still seems to make sense, though he also acknowledges that the world is in uncharted territory with the virus.
He argues that while Sweden might have more infections in the short term, it will not face the risk of a huge infection spike that Denmark might face once its lockdown is lifted.
“I think both Norway and Denmark are now very concerned about how you stop this complete lockdown in a way so you don’t cause this wave to come immediately when you start loosening up,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.