The world still struggles about a convincing strategy to handle the #coronavirus crisis. Radical alternatives focus around (i) herd immunity and selective social distancing and (ii) a total lockdown of the economy and the entire society. In previous posts the GLO website was reporting about the strategy of lockdown, the societal consequences and the arguments against it. Today we investigate a constructive alternative, the Swedish strategy.
Some core messages of the interview:
- Sweden has clearly focused less on forcing people to increase social distance and more on encouraging people to act responsibly.
- There’s clearly social pressure to comply with recommendations from the government.
- Government agencies are more independent from political influence in Sweden.
- The stated objective has been to “flatten the curve” to avoid overburdening the health care system.
- A feared “crisis-fatigue” is one major reason why the Swedish Public Health Authority has been reluctant to push social distancing further.
- Sweden’s great registry data will only in the long-run help to understand the viruscrisis better.
- Covid-19 will not change the Swedish very positive outlook on globalization.
GLO Fellow Erik Lindqvist is a Professor of Economics at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI), Stockholm University, and Editor of the Scandinavian Journal of Economics.
GLO: While most of the European governments have applied very restrictive measures to fight the Coronacrisis, Sweden’s reaction remains more relaxed: What are the key elements of the Swedish strategy?
Erik Lindqvist: The Swedish government has implemented a number of measures similar (though less comprehensive) to those in other countries. Public gatherings larger than 50 people are no longer allowed; almost all education in upper secondary-school and universities is now online; visits to nursery homes are no longer allowed, etc. These sharp measures are combined with pleas to the public to reduce travel; to work from home in case it’s feasible; to avoid public transport during rush hour, etc. High-risk groups (especially people above age 70) are strongly encouraged to self-isolate to the extent possible. Yet unlike most other countries, restaurants, schools, gyms and similar facilities are still open. So, Sweden has clearly focused less on forcing people to increase social distance and more on encouraging people to act responsibly.
GLO: Has the Swedish population more “social discipline” than other nations that allow for such a strategy?
Erik Lindqvist: There’s clearly social pressure to comply with recommendations from the government and my impression is many (though not all) do. But whether this pressure is stronger in Sweden than in other countries I really don’t know.
GLO: While the decisive actors in most countries are policymakers, who use the moment to strengthen their profile as conflict managers which ends in what has been called “availability cascades”, Sweden’s policy seems to be more designed by the Swedish Public Health Authority than by the government.
Erik Lindqvist: Compared to most other countries, government agencies are more independent from political influence in Sweden. But I also think the Swedish government has deliberately chosen to rely on advice of the Swedish Public Health Authority regarding the public health-side of the crisis.
GLO: Are there outlined objectives of the Swedish policy, and how do the Swedish authorities measure success?
Erik Lindqvist: The stated objective has been to “flatten the curve” to avoid overburdening the health care system. My impression is that this is the key factor guiding policy. I am unaware of any explicit quantitative targets beyond that.
GLO: How important is it that an initial response is in line with a long-term consistent policy?
Erik Lindqvist: From what I gather, I think a fear “crisis-fatigue” is one major reason for why the Swedish Public Health Authority has been reluctant to push as far ahead with social distancing as other countries have done. My personal hope is that Sweden (and other countries) might be able to implement somewhat less restrictive measures in the long-term by ramping up testing for Covid-19. This also seems to be underway, though perhaps not yet quite as forcefully as I personally would have hoped for.
GLO: What is the data situation in Sweden, which typically has excellent individual-level data. Can those data be used to handle the situation effectively, by connecting them with good measures of infections, deaths and those recovered?
Erik Lindqvist: Sweden indeed has great registry data which in time will allow researchers to learn a lot about Covid-19. Yet because there is a lag of, say, 3-6 months before the relevant registries are updated, such analyses are not yet possible. I think this is unfortunate – analyses using real-time data could help inform policy as the crisis unfolds – but I also understand and respect the fact that updating the data is non-trivial and that the people responsible for it have many other pressing matters to attend to at this moment.
GLO: Will Swedes consider globalization as a burden after this crisis?
Erik Lindqvist: The effect of Covid-19 on globalization is, I think, one of the major issues for the years to come after the crisis. Swedes in general have a very positive outlook on globalization – we are, after all, a small, export-dependent country. My guess is Covid-19 will not change this. But a somewhat soberer view on the extent to which we can rely on global supply chains in times of crisis is inevitable, I think. There seems to be general agreement in Swedish policy circles that we need to increase our storage of basic medical supplies, for instance.
With Erik Lindqvist spoke Klaus F. Zimmermann, GLO President.
Related GLO research:
Yun Qiu, Xi Chen & Wei Shi (2020):
Impacts of Social and Economic Factors on the Transmission of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in China
GLO Discussion Paper, No. 494. Introduction.
Activities and reports of the GLO Research Cluster on the Coronavirus.