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Sweden bucks global trend with experimental virus strategy

  • Published at 08:16 pm April 23rd, 2020
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'We’re on a sort of plateau'

Sweden has become an international outlier in its response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak by keeping schools open and adopting few other restrictions, as the Scandinavian nation embarks on what one health expert called a “huge experiment.” 

Sweden’s unusual approach to fighting the pandemic is starting to yield results, according to the country’s top epidemiologist.

Anders Tegnell, the architect behind Sweden’s relatively relaxed response to Covid-19, told local media the latest figures on infection rates and fatalities indicate the situation is starting to stabilize.

“We’re on a sort of plateau,” Tegnell told Swedish news agency TT.

When the UK went into lockdown last month, Sweden was the largest European country with the fewest limits on where people can go and what they can do. 

Schools for children up to the age of 16 remained open, many people continued to go to work and packed commuter trains and buses were reported this week in the capital, Stockholm. 

Swedish authorities have banned public gatherings of more than 500 people, closed universities and higher education colleges, and advised workers to stay at home if possible. 

Sweden is piling up coronavirus cases more slowly than Britain - without the need for an economically crippling lockdown. 

Over the last three days, Sweden added an average of 50 cases per million people, whereas Britain's figure was 73 despite a shutdown which has now been in place for a month. 

Britain's three-day average has been consistently higher than Sweden's since March 28, five days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the lockdown.  

The UK death rate is also higher at 10.2 per million over the last three days, compared to Sweden's 9.2.  

Johan Carlson, head of Sweden’s public health agency, last week defended Sweden’s approach, saying the country “cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society.”

But he conceded that the 90,000 figure for the number of people who die annually in Sweden would “increase significantly” if its healthcare system becomes overburdened.

There have been 16,000 reported Covid-19 cases in Sweden and 1,937 deaths. That compares with more than 6,000 deaths in Italy, Europe’s worst-affected country.

It’s unclear which strategy will ultimately prove most effective, and even experts in Sweden warn it’s too early to draw conclusions. But given the huge economic damage caused by strict lockdowns, the Swedish approach has drawn considerable interest around the world.

Part of that approach relies on having access to one of the world’s best-functioning health-care systems.

At no stage did Sweden see a real shortage of medical equipment or hospital capacity, and tents set up as emergency care facilities around the country have mostly remained empty.

Sweden’s Covid-19 strategy may ultimately result in a smaller -- albeit historically deep -- economic contraction than the rest of Europe is now facing, according to HSBC Global Research economist James Pomeroy.

“While Sweden’s unwillingness to lock down the country could ultimately prove to be ill-judged, for now, if the infection curve flattens out soon, the economy could be better placed to rebound,” he said.

Sweden's government continues to follow the guidelines of the country's public health agency, spearheaded by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

Tegnell has said that the likelihood of a shutdown decreases day by day and the agency has been emphasising the effectiveness of the current restrictions.

”One advantage [of the Swedish strategy] is that the more voluntary restrictions can be upheld for a longer time," assistant state epidemiologist Anders Wallensten told Euronews.

"If you close society completely, there is more stress on the economy. This is probably more acceptable by the people in general.”

The primary goal of the strategy is to protect the most at-risk groups in society while also keeping institutions such as schools going, said the director of Sweden's public health agency, Karin Tegmark Wisell, in a recent interview on Swedish radio.

"The Swedish strategy is not about achieving herd immunity, even though that would help the development in Sweden," she added.

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