Sweden tops EU rate of new daily COVID-19 cases

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. [Shutterstock]

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

Sweden, whose softer approach to fighting COVID-19 drew global attention, has one of the EU’s highest rates of new cases but authorities say the spread is slowing.

In the last two weeks, the country was second to Luxembourg in the EU in terms of new cases per capita with new infections more than six times the EU average.

Over the past 60 days, Sweden has seen a drastic increase in the number of new cases, but authorities stress that serious COVID-19 cases and associated deaths have declined.

“If you increase testing you will find more cases,” deputy state epidemiologist Anders Wallensten told AFP. “But the more serious cases, those who become sick and need hospital care have rather decreased,” he added.

Sweden remains the ‘odd one out’ among the Nordics as travellers coming to and from the country will continue being subject to travel restrictions.

About half of Sweden’s COVID-19-related deaths were recorded in care homes, heavily affecting the elderly, according to the country’s health and social care inspectorate.

Serious failings in providing the right care for care home residents had been found in 91 of Sweden’s homes, Health Minister Lena Hallengren told reporters on Tuesday (7 July), adding that these will be further investigated.

The interior ministers of the four Nordic countries – Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland – decided on Friday (26 June) to open their borders for travel without obliging travellers to go into a four-week quarantine.

Meanwhile, travel to Sweden is not recommended and those travelling to and from the country will have to continue undergoing a two-week quarantine.

Meanwhile, Swedes are starting to have doubts about how the coronavirus crisis is being handled domestically. At the same time though, the Social Democrats and the government as a whole are seeing a rise in the polls.

According to a survey carried out in the turn of May and June, 45% of the Swedes trusted in the government’s ability to control and take care of the coronavirus situation.

However, within a month, there was a drop of 18%, particularly since the number of infections now nearing 52,000 and the number of deaths approaching 5,000, appears to have eroded the faith in authorities. At the same time, the minority government consisting of the Social Democratic Party and the Greens is increasing its popularity.

Meanwhile, Finland has offered to help Sweden tackle the coronavirus crisis, which remains difficult for mining communities in the north, Finnish Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green) told Swedish broadsheet Svenska Dagbladet on Sunday (21 June).

This comes after the Finnish government decided to keep travel restrictions in place for Sweden, which was not well-received in Sweden.

“I’m saying this on behalf of the whole Finnish government that it would be utterly important to return to a normal situation with Sweden. We have a continuous connection with each other and Finland is ready to help in intensive care and testing – in any way possible. We are here. We are ready for you,” said Ohisalo, who is building ‘bridges over troubled water’.

The minister also said that a discussion about opening borders between all Nordic countries will again be held this week at ministerial level.

As of Monday (29 June), Sweden recorded 78,166 COVID-19 infections and 5,646 deaths.

On 17 June, the number of coronavirus infections had risen swiftly in the Northern mining towns of Jällivaara and Kiruna with about 250 new infections between the two. However, the authorities have not been able to give a clear explanation for this development.

On 21 May, it was reported that Sweden has the highest coronavirus death rate in the world. According to The Daily Telegraph, between the period 13 May and 20 May, the country had 6.08 deaths per million, which is followed by the UK (5.57), Belgium (4.28) and the US (4.11). 

Tegnell’s second thoughts

Swedish state epidemiologist and the face of the country’s pandemic strategy, Anders Tegnell, said on Wednesday (3 June) that he is having second thoughts about how his country has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Swedish radio, his change of heart stems from the country’s high mortality rates.

“If the kind of disease would hit us again and if we would know what to do, I’d say that our actions should be somewhere in between what Sweden and the rest of the world have done,” he said.

Earlier in May, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt told Svenska Dagbladet that Tegnell should keep a lower profile, urging him to stop criticising the coronavirus strategies of other countries and that he should not place himself on a pedestal.

Bildt is worried this kind of behaviour portrays Sweden as an arrogant country and said that if he were still the PM, he would stop Tegnell from commenting on other countries. 

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Herd immunity can be reached by May

The Swedish Ambassador to the United States says that Stockholm could see herd immunity from COVID-19 as of May, which scientists place at 60% of the population having immunity to the virus.

“About 30% of people in Stockholm have reached a level of immunity […] We could reach herd immunity in the capital as early as next month,” Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter told National Public Radio on Sunday (26 April).

This proclamation comes on the heels of Health and Social Minister Lena Hallengren highlighting a clear drawback to the approach. While the government has stood united behind the country’s less restrictive corona policy, on Saturday (25 April), she told the evening newspaper Aftonbladet, that the country has failed to protect its elderly population from the virus, who make up half of Sweden’s coronavirus fatalities.  

Questioned as to why the number of deaths in Sweden is higher compared to other Nordic countries, Hallengren could not give a definite answer, noting that the time for the evaluation would come later. She also repeated her faith in Sweden’s “more sustainable” coronavirus strategy.

Sweden’s ‘relaxed’ approach

Sweden continues to pursue a different approach to tackle the coronavirus situation compared to other Nordic and EU countries.

Generally, the country is basing its approach on recommendations rather than orders and forced measures. Citizens are being asked to act responsibly, keep a healthy distance to one another and work from home if possible.

It is the only European country where schools to remain open. According to the authorities, children should keep going to school as they could otherwise become alienated from society and drift into criminal activities. High school and universities switched to distant learning, though.

Shops and restaurants operate normally but are recommended to observe distancing measures. Besides, while it has not restricted the movement of persons, people over 70 are advised to stay home.

Gatherings with more than 50 people were banned since 27 March, after it had been decided on 22 March that the threshold would be 500. During the Easter break, ski resorts remained, while after-ski parties had to be cancelled and ski lifts were ordered to not be overcrowded. While resorts such as Åre, Sälen and Vemdalen remained open, neighbouring Norway closed its resorts.

Although Swedes can still travel within the country, they would have to wait until next year to travel abroad, said Anders Tegnell, the country’s state epidemiologist. “It takes quite a while before travelling abroad returns to what we were used to. If it ever returns, that remains to be seen,” Tegnell added.

On 19 March, Sweden issued a ban on non-essential travel into the country for 30 days. While Swedes are able to return, foreign citizens from a country outside the EEAS or Switzerland – except for diplomats, people in need of international protection and people carrying out essential functions such as working in the healthcare sector – are not allowed to enter.

However, many countries have kept their travel restrictions in place for Sweden. While there are no entry restrictions for travellers from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and the UK, particularly by the Nordic states Sweden is being treated as the “odd one out” due to its unconventional pandemic strategy, which is creating bad blood among the usually tight-knit states.

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A questionable approach?

It is predicted that one in four persons living in Stockholm could soon be infected by the coronavirus, the Swedish health agency reported on 24 April, adding that half of the 2.35 million-person city of Stockholm could be infected within the next six to seven weeks.

The healthcare sector has also been affected by the approach. For instance, given the growing concerns regarding the availability of protective equipment as of 27 March, Sweden and Finland started to plan a consortium to produce respirators which should be delivered by mid-May.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven criticised the relaxed approach when it was decided that the football season would continue for the lower football divisions on 17 April, at least in the Stockholm area.

“I love football and I wish to see it as much as I can, but now is not the time for adults to play. I think it’s irresponsible and unnecessary,” Löfven told the newspaper Aftonbladet in reference to a decision taken by Stockholm’s football federation.

The PM had previously criticised the behaviour of restaurants and customers on 9 April for not respecting distancing measures and ordered an increase in inspections as a result.

However, others have praised the approach, both within and outside the country.

Director-General of Sweden’s public health agency, Johan Carlson, told Swedish Television in an interview on 29 March that the country’s approach to coronavirus was the right one, adding that the authorities “remain pretty confident it is the best way to stop the disease from spreading.” Locking up people for four to five months is a “cumbersome experiment,” he said, adding that “it did not matter how many infections we have.”

On top of that, Oxford Professor and director of the centre for evidence-based medicine, Carl Heneghan, had praised Sweden’s method in an interview with the Daily Mail. The professor said that lockdowns were more damaging to the economy than the coronavirus, adding that the country had “held its” and avoided “doomsday scenarios”. Heneghan also urged the UK government to reopen society.

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Supporting the economy

According to the Swedish News Agency (TT), in the first week of April, some 25,000 people registered as unemployed, bringing the total number up to around 400,000. By summer, the unemployment rate in Sweden is expected to be around 10%.

The government is reaching out to employers’ in various ways.

Wage costs can be halved and the government will cover a larger share of the costs by increasing the subsidy level. The employee may receive more than 90% of their wage. Government is also proposing to cover the entire cost of all sick sick pay during April and May, while the self-employed would receive standardised sick pay for days 1–14 as compensation.

Companies are also allowed to delay payment of employers’ social security contributions, preliminary tax on salaries and value-added tax normally reported monthly or quarterly. 

The Swedish company Absolut, famous for its high-end vodka brand, has started contributing to the production of alcohol-based hand sanitiser. The liquid comes in need since some hospitals are even reporting thefts.

Per Follin, a doctor specialised in infectious diseases and representing the Stockholm area told the Swedish Radio on 16 June that it is acceptable to return to the workplace when tested positive for the virus as long as the symptoms are mild. People can return if they have been ill for seven days and have not had a fever for two days, according to new evidence presented by Follin and state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

Sweden gets airline bailout green light from EU

The European Commission approved Sweden’s half-billion euro support scheme for airlines on Saturday (11 April), in what is one of the first major forays into bailing out Europe’s coronavirus-hit airlines.

Stockholm: the country’s most affected city

After there was talk of isolating Stockholm from the rest of the country on 26 March, Mayor Anna König Jerlmyr described the situation on 2 April as “very, very serious” and urged the government to provide more protective gear. With intensive care units (ICUs) getting full, some have described circumstances as “chaotic”. 

In particular, the suburbs with predominantly immigrant populations are starting to have to deal with the virus more, said Anders Tegnell, a state epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency. While the situation has been difficult in nursing homes, authorities have started to name a few Stockholm suburbs with predominantly immigrant populations as epicentres, which Tegnell says could be due to different lifestyles.

“Usually the risk becomes higher when many generations live together in surroundings where the space is rather limited. But, no one has yet come up with a definite analysis,” Tegnell told the Swedish News Agency.

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