Give me Liberty now; Life can wait – Sweden’s Light-touch strategy for COVID

Though brief, it was a little hard to ignore.

There nestled today among the cesspool of news articles on (what else?) COVID-19 that dominated most pages of our daily newspapers, I saw this sobering piece of news, with a rather eye-popping statistic.

As of 8 May, Sweden (with a population of around 10.3 million) had over 3,000 deaths because of COVID, compared to its neighbors like Denmark (514 out of 5.8 million) and Norway (217 out of 5.4 million)! So even if you discount for possible variations among countries in the way they compute their numbers, the difference is – to put it mildly -alarming!

And all because this nordic nation chose a completely different path to tackle this virus, compared to most Western economies. It didn’t impose any kind of lockdown, and the country was pretty much all business as usual, albeit slightly slower than before.

I decided to find out more.

I went to several news sites like Al-Jazeera, Bloomberg and CNBC. True enough. Sweden had chosen to take a more relaxed approach towards the pandemic, and its death toll per capita was certainly comparable to the USA, the country that’s the worst-hit right now.

I investigated just how relaxed Sweden was, and found out that while it:

  1. recommended its citizens to exercise voluntary and responsible social distancing, this wasn’t policed nor enforced. And gatherings of below 50 were still considered fine.
  2. got tertiary institutions to go online for classes, this wasn’t applied to the lower levels. In short, schools for kids below 16 still stayed open as per normal.
  3. cautioned citizens to stay home to work as much as possible (avoiding non-essential travel), it allowed cafes, bars, restaurants and businesses to stay open.

Given that Sweden continues to remain in the top 10 list of countries worst-hit in terms of deaths per million population, I just had to understand why such a seemingly laissez-faire attitude was adopted and even accepted by its citizens.

And when you throw in the fact that many of the Swedish victims who succumbed to COVID were the elderly, well surely this must feel like a travesty of the worst kind no? All those deaths might have been prevented, or at the very least kept to numbers more in keeping with its neighbors’.

To be fair, no country has the upper hand in terms of how their handling of the virus is the best among the rest. For all we know, the Swede’s method to keep it relaxed in order to reach some kind of herd immunity might prove to be the better horse to bet on in the long run.

Only time will tell.

So it might still be early days yet to fault Sweden, even though their death toll is predicted to continue on with its current dangerous ascent.

But still, I couldn’t get over the feeling that Sweden was behaving like a fireman standing in front of a burning house with arms lightly folded, doing nothing to save the people trapped inside.

And so I decided to research a bit more about its culture, by way of understanding how its societal values might have played a part in this light-touch approach. After all, such issues almost invariably touch on social mores and norms.

What I found out about the Swedes’ culture (from Vox, an independent research organization based in the UK) were the following:

  • Trust was typically high between the public and the government, both vertically and horizontally.
  • They have no shortage of hospital beds, suggesting a robust healthcare system.
  • Its history and heritage were of the liberal-individualist persuasion; in short, to each his own.
  • The economy was of preeminence, as the country relied heavily on external trade.
  • Keeping things normal was a priority. Quoting a recent statement from the nation’s chief epidemiologist Tegnell who leads the nation’s COVID battle, “people should be able to keep a reasonably normal life.”

And there, in those last three characteristics, I found my answer.

Between choosing to save as many lives as possible today, and keeping the economy and people’s daily lifestyles humming tomorrow, Sweden has made it clear to the world which it prefers.

Certainly, there were many in Sweden who opposed the decision and had spoken up about it. And perhaps, in the long run, the country might come to regret choosing this ‘wiser’ path to “give me Liberty” now (Life can take a number).

But for now, at least, Sweden seems to be standing firm on its strategy.

I just can’t help wondering though how its leaders can explain its decision to its grandchildren and future generations.

That when faced today with a choice to save someone in a house that’s burning now, Sweden chose instead to stand still, with arms lightly folded.

Waiting for the house to burn down.

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