PARIS — Like much of the rest of the world, Sweden is now facing a second wave of coronavirus infections. But while other countries are debating which mix of restrictions to reinstate, the Swedish government has finally decided to announce its very first ban: closing bars and restaurants after 10:30 pm starting tomorrow.
As a Swede living in a strictly locked-down France, I've watched with a mix of perplexity and pride at my native country's "light touch" approach that relies on people taking responsibility for their choices. I also feel a pang of envy each day I'm forced to fill out a government form just to go down the street to buy a baguette.
But now, it seems like Swedish authorities are losing control: As the death toll passed 6,000 in early November and ICU beds started to fill up, my countrymen were still huddling together in malls, sitting knee-to-knee in bars and visiting grandparents in nursing homes.
Seven months into the pandemic, the Rules v. Recommendations debate rages on. When asking my mother, who's in self-imposed quarantine in one of the country's hardest-hit regions: Skane, she didn't understand why health authorities "have abandoned their own strategy."
Bracing for the first outbreak back in February, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell made global headlines for resisting calls for lockdowns. But he also emphasized the importance of giving clear instructions to the public: This would allow Swedes to responsibly navigate their own freedom, and the public health agency to apply a more surgical response to the crisis.
A sign reminding customers about social distancing in central Stockholm — Photo: Amir Nabizadeh/ZUMA
And yet, more and more, a lack of clarity has become the norm in Sweden as well.
While the health authorities still enjoy high trust among Swedes (around 70% as of October 30 according to Dagens Nyheter), what has been labeled a "fact-based" approach has paradoxically become a source of confusion. For example, the question of mask-wearing has been a constant back-and-forth between "individual risk assessment" and wider government recommendations — with the public health agency pointing to the lack of evidence for its efficiency.
At the same time, guidelines for the country's 21 regions have been rolled out and rolled back reactively and interspersed with nation-wide recommendations for public gathering (first 500 people and then 250 to 50 and most recently 8 people).
In Stockholm, where buses have been full due to reduced public transport (and drivers calling in sick), people commuting to work are nonetheless not required to wear a mask, but encouraged to "avoid crowded places." There's a constant evaluation and reevaluation of everything: How and when to sit in a restaurant, how to shop, how much distance to keep and where…
It's true that the jury is still out on the usefulness of mask-wearing, and we still have much to learn about this virus. But the Swedish public still could have benefited from fewer but firmer government policies. No doubt, the double lockdowns in France have been a very real blow to people's freedom, but the strict measures ultimately amount to the government taking its responsibility. Swedes instead may still have their freedom, but perhaps it has come with too much responsibility.