Did Sweden get it right?

A personal reflection of how Sweden have been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic after being in Stockholm for a month.


Walking the streets of Stockholm, you would be forgiven for thinking that Sweden has had a free pass from the Covid-19 pandemic. Outside of the airport, it is extremely rare to see people wearing masks. Shops and restaurants are open for business as usual and have been for most of the past eight months.

It is a reminder of what things used to be like before the coronavirus. You can’t help wondering how the country has bounced back from the pandemic having had "no lockdown", no policy for wearing masks – even on public transport – and fewer critical care beds per head of population.

Aside from the population stereotype of being more naturally self-isolating and eating pickled herring, there are other differences. Stockholm is far less busy and international than London. There’s generally more outdoor space to enjoy a healthier lifestyle – I’ve enjoyed many outdoor swims in the lake.

Anyone familiar with Stockholm will see subtle differences. We stayed with in-laws in Södermalm – the southern island of Stockholm. It is considered the hipster district, although we are opposite a set of retirement blocks. The roads are much busier with traffic, and the pavements are littered with toppled e-scooters and bicycles. These e-scooters have replaced the abundance of people on walking frames I remember seeing last year. The eerie lack of elderly is partly due to many deaths and a restraining order on the over 70s living in care homes.

Restaurants, like those run by my father-in-law, have seen evening customer numbers return as people come back from summer vacations. Provided they do not get overcrowded; it is okay to operate as usual. The disruption to education has also been minimal with graduation ceremonies and group class photos happening in June, although the "studentflak’s" were cancelled this year.

Through a mix of geographic luck, timing and attitude, Sweden’s seemingly laissez-faire approach appears to be working.

Herein lies a difference between perception and reality. While Sweden is considered an outlier - no lockdown and no masks - it has put in place a range of measures, advice, and support for their population. The population challenge the direction, but where it stands up to scrutiny, it is followed compliantly by most. Everyone talks about “the stubbornness” of the public health authorities, but also of “the sustainability” of the response and the broad consideration of public health.

In some ways, the advice and measures go further than the UK equivalents. People are to work from home if possible until 2021; there is a restraining order on the elderly in care homes that has just been extended; and Sweden's equivalent of the furlough scheme has been in place since the 13th of March. Although there is still no requirement to wear masks and people are less stringent with social distancing (although sensible) — the photo is of me with Stefan Löfven, the Swedish Prime Minister.

We have been captivated by Stockholm for the last few weeks while waiting for the removal of the quarantine restriction to get back home. Despite the removal of the restrictions, much cooler weather, and needing to go home for the cat, we don't really want to leave.