In this post, you’ll read why Sweden decided to go for a no strict lockdown approach to battle covid19 and if it is working or not.
The beer-loving Czechs are finally allowed to get back into pubs, and joggers have returned to Madrid’s famous Retiro Park, Italians are heading to beaches and piazzas, Germans are gearing up to watch Bundesliga matches, Greeks are taking ferries to visit islands, Polish kids have started going to schools. Most of Europe is opening up, albeit with strict hygiene and social distancing rules. As bleary-eyed Europeans squint in the sun and taste the freedom they missed during the coronavirus pandemic, worries about the second wave of COVID-19 is on everybody’s mind. While the new normal is here to stay until a vaccine is available, what sort of semi-normal life might work in the meantime is the big question. Sweden may hold the answer. We could learn both from its failures and triumphs.
Same yet different
Despite having a similar Scandinavian society, Sweden has been an outlier and did not join its Nordic neighbours in imposing a lockdown. While schools, restaurants, bars and salons were shut down in other Nordic nations such as Denmark, Norway and Finland, Sweden refused to walk in their shoes.
David Byer, a dance Instructor from Oslo in Norway, shares a local’s perspective on their government’s handling of the situation,
“Gyms, nightclubs, sporting events, universities etc. are closed and the new norm is online classes or maximum gatherings of 50 people with strict rules on social distancing. Our approach has been excellent under the circumstances. For a population of 5.4 million, there are just 8,383 cases and fatalities under 250, which is nothing when you compare it with Sweden having 10.2 million population but over 35,088 cases and 4,220 deaths.”
Adding further, Torunn Tronsvang, the CEO of Up Norway, shares the insight on why Norway has been so efficient in controlling the pandemic,
“Norwegians trust their government and follow set rules. Perhaps that’s why we have less infected people and fewer deaths than other European countries. Also, Norway is a big country with the sparsely populated countryside and smaller cities, and this may have helped to dampen the spread of the virus. After two months of lockdown, we are slowly opening-up, albeit with restrictions. Norwegians follow social distancing from each other, and seek solutions and situations where the risk for contamination is lower.”
Recently Norway and Denmark announced to open up tourism between their two countries from 15 June but decided to continue maintaining restrictions for Swedes. Read more here.
By choosing to stay open rather than instituting a strict lockdown, Sweden’s policies have drawn both international praise and criticism. Some are now looking at Sweden as a role model for the future and others as a case study of a disaster.
Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, the chief architect behind Sweden’s no strict lockdown policy, has continually doubled down on the positives of his country’s approach. Sweden, he said, is playing the long-term game despite the country having a much higher mortality rate than its neighbours. Sweden’s unique strategy to deal with coronavirus will ensure it has only a small second wave of cases, unlike other countries that could be forced to return to lockdown, according to the mastermind of the controversial policy.
Here are a few points I noticed which explain why Sweden chose the no strict-lockdown approach:
Culture of willing obedience
The no-lockdown strategy wasn’t just an aberration; it is deep-rooted in Sweden’s “consensus culture” where as a part of the culture, citizens willingly follow the rules, or guidelines, and are not too pushy about them. Also, Sweden is one of the countries in the world with the highest levels of trust globally, both in institutions and fellow citizens, something that several of the experts’ Travel See Write spoke to cited as a factor in the Swedish strategy. People trust the government and vice versa. The state encourages and recommends the right actions but never compels them to follow.
Kicki Lind, a journalist from Gothenburg, gave a glimpse into her no-lockdown life while underlining her culture of obedience,
“Compared to most people in the world, who are locked in right now, Swedes are very lucky. We have a relatively small population, and we are fortunate to have plenty of outdoor spaces, so keeping a social distance in the outdoors is no big deal. However, all elderly homes are under complete lockdown. I still travel by bus into town several days a week, and I do keep meeting family, small groups of friends and colleagues and occasionally visit a bar or restaurant. However, we politely do our best to keep a social distance and follow the rules. After all, it’s in our blood to take our rights and responsibilities quite sincerely.”
Low scale sustainable approach
It’s not that Sweden didn’t put any restrictions. Steve Robertshaw, PR Manager of Visit Sweden UK says that while restaurants, bars and cafes are open, strict social distancing norms are followed, people can visit national parks, but most museums and theatres are closed, stores and shops are open but with limited opening hours, and public transport is available but with an amended timetable.
Although the big cities, especially Stockholm, are facing the maximum brunt of the COVID19, precautions are taken everywhere despite fewer restrictions. Lars Svanerud, an adventure guide and sport chef at STF Grövelsjön Mountain station, explains,
“Up here in idre, which is a more remote place than Stockholm or other big cities, our life continues as before. I regularly visit my nearby grocery store for supplies. Like before we can even go hiking, running, fishing and some pack rafting in the rivers. But I can’t visit my family in the city of Gävle, which is 4.30 hrs by road. We have a 2-hour limit to travel from home right now. This restriction, of course, affects my work and the upcoming summer season.”
While it’s too early to say whether the Swedish experiment of lockdown-lite is a success or a failure, experts are using different benchmarks to weigh its efficacy. One of them being the economic impact. Just like the world at large, Sweden’s economy is not immune to Covid-19. Even without a nationwide lockdown, Sweden’s economy has taken a hit as people continue to follow the government’s guidelines and stay at home. Google records indicated that trips to retail and recreational destinations in Stockholm are down 23%, while commuter numbers on public transit declined 29% between March 28 and May 9. Future doesn’t look too promising as Sweden’s central bank, the Riksbank, expects unemployment to rise from 6.8% to 10.1% and GDP to shrink by up to 9.7% this year as a result of the pandemic.
But by keeping schools, bars and restaurants open, the country has not seen the same rise in unemployment figures as in other places in the world. Early indications suggest that Sweden’s GDP fell by just 0.3% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 3.8% in the rest of the Eurozone. It is still too early to say whether Sweden will reap the economic benefits of “lockdown-lite” in the coming years.
Tourism post COVID19
Maintaining a low profile like other DMOs Visit Sweden is following the wait and watch strategy. Steve Robertshaw, PR Manager of Visit Sweden UK, told Travel See Write,
“The coronavirus situation is far from over, so nobody knows what the new ‘normal’ will look like. We are, monitoring the situation carefully in our priority markets, keeping an eye on media and traveller sentiment so that we can respond in an appropriate and sensitive way once we enter the recovery phase and travel is possible once again.”
As per Robertshaw, Sweden is well-positioned as a travel destination post-Covid19 and will continue focussing on communicating well organised, smooth-running sustainable nature tourism experiences, plenty of space, good food, the clean and vibrant city lifestyle, all in a secure environment.
The coronavirus fight is far from over. Moreover, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Time will tell whether Sweden’s approach was actually right, but for now, the results don’t seem very good.
Do you agree Sweden did the right thing by avoiding a strict lockdown and using milder containment strategies to beat the Covid-19? Please share your feedback in the below-given comments section.
- Mail Today, India Today: Sweden’s plan for Covid-prevention
- Travel See Write: Why Sweden rejected lockdown
- BBC Travel: Coronavirus: How lockdown is being lifted across Europe
- BBC Travel: Coronavirus: Denmark and Norway exclude Sweden from tourism
- The Hindu Businessline: Sweden, a zero-trash heaven
- The Hindu Businessline: A day with Lovis the reindeer
- The Tribune: Transforming trash into treasure, the Swedish way
- The Tribune: Of Sami and reindeer, and their way of life
- Sakal Times: Hiking with the reindeer
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All the views expressed above are based on my research and conversation with the people mentioned in the story. Images used are provided by Visit Sweden and the people mentioned in the story. Please do not copy anything without my or their written permission.