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In a world imprisoned by Covid-19 lockdowns, Sweden has chosen to take its own path in fighting the pandemic, writes Taylor Edgar

Unlike its Nordic neighbours and most other countries around the globe, Sweden’s strategy to ‘flatten the curve’ does not involve strictly locking down citizens or even mass testing.

Instead, Swedes are placing their trust in an unlikely hero, Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist.

Explains author and journalist, Markus Lutteman: “He is dull and dry, he dresses poorly, and he presents the facts and stats in a way that makes you doubt that he would be able to exaggerate even if he tried. Mr Tegnell could probably best be described as the antithesis of Donald Trump.”

Tegnell’s daily press briefing appearances televised by the national broadcaster, SVT are now compulsory viewing and have propelled this unflappable scientist to cult status. T-shirts bearing his face and a variety of puns and quotes are on sale, with one Tegnell fan, Gustav Lloyd Agerblad going as far as getting the epidemiologist’s face tattooed on his arm.

However, Swedes are not losing sight of what is at stake. They are worried about their elders and the likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19 infections hitting later in the year.

Speaking to from his home city of Örebro, Markus comments that despite some initial debate over the COVID-19 response, most people are now happy with the pandemic approach being adopted.

“There was some debate on that matter at the start of the crisis, during which time a surprisingly high number of our citizens, especially among editorial staff, turned out to be experts on viruses and pandemics. But at the moment I think most of us are quite happy with our country’s response,” comments Markus.

“Some doctors, scientists and virological experts still argue that we should have gone for lockdown as many other countries have, but it’s not a debate that causes an uproar.”

While some in Sweden and elsewhere remain sceptical, there appears to be a general acceptance that the no-lockdown strategy is correct. And may prove in the long run to be better, or at least as effective, as the lockdowns imposed by other countries.

The price, though, has been a relatively higher number of corona-infected citizens. Stockholm, the capital, is Sweden’s COVID-19 epicentre, with far fewer cases in the rest of the country. As of April 28, 2,355 Swedes have died of COVID-19, and 1,388 are in intensive care, the majority in Stockholm.

Says Markus: “Generally our trust in our government, parliament and professional expertise is quite high, and I think this is the main reason why the government has not had to enforce a lockdown.

“If our leaders and experts tell us: ‘This is what we would like you to do in the current situation, for the greater good’, a lot of Swedes actually follow those suggestions.”

His faith in Sweden’s handling of the pandemic comes despite COVID-19 visiting his family. Markus’s wife is a hospital worker and tested COVID-19 positive after other staff became infected. Luckily, her symptoms were mild, but the positive test meant the entire family self-isolated for a few weeks before venturing outside again.

Routine testing is only currently available to people seeking hospital care and health workers. The issue, as in the UK, is raised on an almost daily basis.

While hospital care in Sweden is considered good, there has been concern expressed about the number of deaths within care homes. Also coming under scrutiny is the shortage of personal protection equipment for staff and the poor working conditions within the home care sector.

In the meantime, life in Sweden continues, albeit in a much-reduced manner. Universities and senior high schools are closed, but kindergartens and junior high schools remain open.

Where possible people are working from home, but restaurants and most shops are open. People are advised to keep a safe distance from one another, and citizens older than 70 are advised to stay at home and not visit their children and grandchildren. Grocery stores and other indoor areas where people gather now have floor markings to maintain social distancing.  The government is also advising citizens to avoid unnecessary domestic travel and visits to older people.

Despite overseas news reports, it is not business as usual in Sweden, Markus emphasises. “Our towns and cities are quieter than they used to be, and owners of restaurants and shops are facing some tough times. Many have gone bankrupt already,’ says the Swedish author.

“We feel fortunate that we are not locked up in our homes, and this is probably also good for avoiding a Viking-style rebellion. One of the few things that could start a revolution in this country is if our government deprived us of our rights to enjoy the first warm rays of springtime sunshine after a cold, dark winter.”

As an author, life continues pretty much as before for Markus. The only difference is that he is working from home all the time instead of decamping to the library, a hotel lobby or cafeteria to craft his latest novel.

“Outside of work, the biggest change is that I hardly ever see my friends, and I really miss that. But we are still lucky since we can meet outdoors. Last week, I went mountain biking in the forests with two friends, which was nice, and on Thursday evening my family and two other families are planning to have an outdoor picnic to celebrate Walpurgis night,” he adds.

Walpurgis night celebrates the arrival of spring. Typically, entire neighbourhoods meet up and light massive bonfires. This year, Markus’ annual Walpurgis was being scaled down to burning a few logs in a clearing in the local woods. The flames on Thursday April 30 though did not eradicate the uncertainty about what the future holds. Markus is worried about his mother and elderly relatives getting infected, and whether infection necessarily means immunity from the expected second wave of COVID-19 expected in the autumn. Testing of people with COVID-19 antibodies has thus far proved inconclusive on the question of immunity.

These are Markus’ immediate worries. Of more significant concern for him in the long term is the climate crisis which, unlike COVID-19, won’t go away. He, therefore, finds talk of ‘business as usual’ post-COVID-19 very alarming.  “The good thing about this pandemic is that we have gotten a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restart our economies and aim for a zero-carbon society as soon as possible. Unfortunately, so far, I haven’t seen any sign of that happening,” Markus concedes.

Given Sweden’s reputation for doing their own thing, it’s eminently possible they will forge the way ahead for the rest of the world.

About Markus Lutteman

Markus Lutteman is a Swedish journalist and author of ten books, some of which have been translated into multiple languages. His debut, ”El Choco”, a documentary novel based on the spectacular story of Jonas Andersson, a Swede who served time in the infamous San Pedro prison in Bolivia, has sold more than 200 000 copies in Sweden.

He has also written best-selling biographies on Swedish high jumping Olympic medalist and former world record holder Patrik Sjoberg, and Per Holknekt, a Swedish skateboard pro, fashion designer, entrepreneur, millionaire, songwriter and alcoholic. 

In 2014, he switched to fiction and collaborated on a Nordic crime noir series, and then penned a critically acclaimed and well-researched book,  ”Blodmåne” (Blood Moon), a novel about rhino poaching.

His writing took a new direction in 2019 with the release of ”Floden” (Surface), a "dark, existential page-turner."