Swedes try laissez-faire model in controversial virus response

Niclas Rolander

Sweden is starting to look like a global outlier in its response to the coronavirus.

Scandinavia’s biggest economy is one of the last places where kids still go to school, cafes, bars and restaurants remain open, and gatherings of up to 500 people are still allowed.

The Swedish approach raises questions about how socially distant we need to be to stay safe, given the devastating impact of shutting down an entire economy.

“I’m not sure we will get an entirely clear picture of which measures were most effective,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s top epidemiologist, said at a press conference in Stockholm on Monday. He underscored Sweden’s adherence to what he said was the most important principle: Protecting the elderly through isolation.

For some, Sweden’s approach is a clear weakness. Nordea has gone as far as suggesting that a “laissez-faire” model might be a reason to avoid Swedish markets. To others, less restrictive measures seem more pragmatic.

“We have to help each other to emerge from this panic, and return to a balanced approach,” Kerstin Hessius, the CEO of one of Sweden’s biggest pension funds, AP3, wrote in a recent op-ed. “We haven’t shuttered our entire society, as many other countries have. We therefore have good conditions in place to take the next step and plan for a reasonably quick return to normalcy.”

There still are many unknowns. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government initially considered building so-called herd immunity, in effect allowing large numbers of people to become infected. As the gravity of the pandemic became clearer, including an estimate of potentially 250,000 deaths, he changed tack and imposed a nationwide lockdown.

In Sweden, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven says he may yet impose stricter measures. But the decision to keep schools open, for example, means health-care workers can function without having to worry about looking after children.

Some of Sweden’s Nordic neighbors have taken particularly drastic steps. Danes face hefty fines if they gather in groups of more than 10. Schools, restaurants, bars, cafes and shops other than grocers and chemists have been shuttered, and the country was among the first in the European Union to close its borders.