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Malmö, Sweden/March 30, 2020
Malmö, Sweden/March 30, 2020
Carl-Johan Karlsson

STOCKHOLM — As COVID-19 shuts down vast swathes of the world, Sweden has become Europe's last "open" holdout. In the 10-million strong Nordic country, borders, elementary schools, offices, gyms and even restaurants remain open. So far, some 5,500 have tested positive for the virus and more than 300 people have died, but the government stands firm: No lockdown is the order of the day. So, what's the rationale?

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell argues the virus will inevitably pass through a large chunk of the population, and that China-style containment will only cause it to flare up again. Rather, the better way is to manage the pace of the spread — for which a lockdown is superfluous.

Similarly, Public Health Agency general director Johan Carlson says locking people up for months at a time is a far worse "experiment," than controlling the spread over time. He says citizens will question rigid measures that make no sense: "Why can only one person walk the dog if there are two owners who live together?" Carlson asked in a recent interview with Public Service Television (SVT).

Sweden seems to have successfully implemented the approach Boris Johnson initially espoused.

It's worth noting that Swedish health authorities enjoy unusually high independence. For comparison, in neighboring Norway and Denmark the government ignored health authorities' recommendation to keep schools open. Tegnell, who gives daily briefs to the Swedish people, has been more successful in selling his strategy, which is supported by 52% of the population, according to a survey bySvenska Dagbladet.

So far, in fact, Sweden seems to be implementing the controversial approach Boris Johnson initially espoused in the UK. Tegnell is banking against a scenario predicted in the much talked-about study from Imperial College London that warned attempts to let the virus spread to eventually immunize the population would bring one million British deaths. Tegnell dismissed that study, which pushed Johnson to opt for a lockdown, as "not peer reviewed," and said he was surprised it had stirred up such as fuzz in the UK.


But some form of Swedish lockdown may be on its way. The death toll is considerably higher than in the other Scandinavian countries, and Sweden finally banned gatherings of more than 50 people earlier this week, reportsDagens Nyheter. Look for authorities to incrementally roll out more restrictions as the death toll climbs.

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