Trump’s latest attack on Sweden revives virus controversy

Morten Buttler and Nick Rigillo Bloomberg L.P.

Donald Trump’s lashing at Sweden has reignited a debate on whether the country’s relaxed approach to fighting Covid-19 is madness or genius.

The U.S. president, who is facing criticism at home for initially playing down the threat of a pandemic, on Thursday sought to direct attention toward developments in Sweden.

“Despite reports to the contrary, Sweden is paying heavily for its decision not to lockdown,” he tweeted.

Johan Carlson, the director general of Sweden’s public health agency, said Trump’s comments weren’t weighing on his deliberations. “The important thing is that you make sure you keep the disease under control so that the health-care system isn’t overloaded, and so far we’ve managed that,” he said, according to a report in Aftonbladet.

But Trump’s latest outburst has once again drawn attention to Sweden’s controversial response to fighting the coronavirus. The country has left schools, hairdressers, restaurants, gyms and much of the rest of society open. Instead, the government has urged citizens to act responsibly and observe social distancing guidelines.

Initially, there was near universal condemnation of Sweden’s decision to avoid a full lockdown. But more recently, opinions have evolved after the country’s top epidemiologist has declared the strategy a success, after the rate of infections appeared to stabilize.

Workers prepare to spread fertilizer on the grass at Stadsparken in Lund, Sweden, Thursday, April 30, 2020. In an attempt to deter residents from gathering to celebrate Walpurgis Night, authorities spread stinking chicken manure on the grounds of a city park to keep people away.

According to Johns Hopkins University data, Sweden’s death rate per thousand is about 24, compared with roughly 19 in the U.S.

Anders Tegnell, the medical mastermind behind Sweden’s approach, says the idea is to come up with a model that can stay the course, based on an assumption that Covid-19 isn’t going away any time soon.

In a recent interview with Danish state broadcaster DR, Tegnell said “the long-term sustainability of strict rules isn’t that big. You can only impose such restrictions for a limited time. So you need to find a different way, and our model may prove more sustainable.”

It’s a notion that won the support of the World Health Organization this week. Michael Ryan, who runs WHO’s health emergencies program, says that “if we are to reach a new normal, in many ways Sweden represents a future model.”

In Sweden, the laissez-faire approach has at no point resulted in a rate of infections that has overburdened the country’s health-care system, thanks to its universal, state-funded model.

There’s also some confusion as to what national death rates capture. Swedish authorities say they’ve been meticulous in reporting fatalities in elderly homes, which isn’t the case in some other countries.

Others have pointed to Sweden’s comparative wealth as an important factor. HSBC Global Research economist James Pomeroy notes that more than half of Swedish households are single-person, making social distancing easier to carry out. More people work from home than anywhere else in Europe, and everyone has access to fast Internet, which helps large chunks of the workforce stay productive away from the office.

Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist, says that “other countries might be able to learn something from Sweden now.”

2020 Bloomberg L.P.