Europeans are starting to venture outside after weeks of confinement, scarred by a virus that has overwhelmed some of the world’s best health care systems and killed more than 120,000 in the continent, yet yearning to rediscover signs of normalcy.
Leaving lockdown looks different in Berlin than it does in Madrid, as each government sets its own rules and pace for letting Europe’s half a billion people taste freedom again.
Sweden, giving credence to the freedom championed by conservatives rather than the safety defended by liberals globally, called for its people to take personal responsibility for social-distancing rules instead of ordering lockdowns.
The virus remains a long-term foe. In the shorter term, globally, it will be up to individuals as much as policymakers to make decisions that will help chart the virus’ course.
“I think everyone still needs to use their judgment. I’m not having a book club in my house. I’m going to my doctor for an allergy shot because that’s safe to do,” Dr. Emily Landon, who leads infection control at the University of Chicago Medical Center, told The Associated Press. “You can try and make it political, make it about freedom, but it’s a virus. It’s biology. Biology doesn’t negotiate.”
“My respect for those who died, but we are doing something right here in Sweden,” said Johan Mattsson, 44, while drinking at a cafe.
“I’m not seeing very different statistics in many other countries,” he told The New York Times. “I’m happy we didn’t go into lockdown. Life has to go on.”
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 -- a softer approach than many other countries have taken. Schools for younger children, restaurants and most businesses have remained open, creating the impression that Swedes were living their lives as usual.
Sweden reported just 400 more deaths than expected between March 9 and April 19.
Last week, health officials said more than 26 percent of the 2 million inhabitants of Stockholm will have been infected by May 1.
Around the world, confirmed infections stood at more than 3 million -- including 1 million in the U.S. -- and the confirmed global death toll topped 210,000, according to the Johns Hopkins count. The true toll is believed to be much higher because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and government concealment.
Even the country's elderly, who have been the biggest victims of the virus, are following along.
“I’m trying not to get too close to people,” said Birgit Lilja, 82. “But I trust them to be careful with me.”
Sweden stood out for what Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist and top strategist in the COVID-19 fight, has called a “low-scale” approach that “is much more sustainable” over a longer period.
He insisted that Sweden’s approach still seemed to make sense, though he also acknowledged that the world has been in uncharted territory with the virus.
“Basically we are trying to do the same thing that most countries are doing -- slow down the spread as much as possible,” he told The Times. “It’s just that we use slightly different tools than many other countries.”
“Once you get into a lockdown, it’s difficult to get out of it,” he added. “How do you reopen? When?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.