How Sweden Has Faced the Virus Without a Lockdown

April 30, 2020

The country was an outlier in Europe, trusting its people to voluntarily follow the protocols. Many haven’t, but it does not seem to have hurt them.

She stood leaning on her cane, briefly resting among dozens of bubbly young Swedes out enjoying one of the first sunny spring days of the year.

“I’m trying not to get too close to people,” said Birgit Lilja, 82, explaining that she had left her house to pick up a new identity card in person. “But I trust them to be careful with me.”

Trust is high in Sweden — in government, institutions and fellow Swedes. When the government defied conventional wisdom and refused to order a wholesale lockdown to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus epidemic, public health officials pointed to trust as a central justification.

Swedes, they said, could be trusted to stay home, follow social distancing protocols and wash their hands to slow the spread of the virus — without any mandatory orders. And, to a large extent, Sweden does seem to have been as successful in controlling the virus as most other nations.

Sweden’s death rate of 22 per 100,000 people is the same as that of Ireland, which has earned accolades for its handling of the pandemic, and far better than in Britain or France.

Yet, on this warm spring day, at least, there was little evidence that people were observing the protocols — adding further mystery to Sweden’s apparent success in handling the scourge without an economically devastating lockdown.

All around Ms. Lilja along Skanegatan Street in the Sodermalm neighborhood of Stockholm, younger Swedes thronged bars, restaurants and a crowded park last week, drinking in the sun.

They laughed and basked in freedoms considered normal in most parts of the world not long ago, before coronavirus lockdowns, quarantines and mass restrictions upended social norms. As other nations in Europe begin to consider reopening their economies, Sweden’s experience would seem to argue for less caution, not more.

“My respect for those who died, but we are doing something right here in Sweden,” said Johan Mattsson, 44, as he was having a drink at a cafe on Skanegatan Street.

The restaurant consultant praised the freedoms he had in Sweden compared to other countries. “I’m not seeing very different statistics in many other countries,” he said. “I’m happy we didn’t go into lockdown. Life has to go on.”

While other countries were slamming on the brakes, Sweden kept its borders open, allowed restaurants and bars to keep serving, left preschools and grade schools in session and placed no limits on public transport or outings in local parks. Hairdressers, yoga studios, gyms and even some cinemas have remained open.

Gatherings of more than 50 people are banned. Museums have closed and sporting events have been canceled. At the end of March, the authorities banned visits to nursing homes.

That’s roughly it. There are almost no fines, and police officers can only ask people to oblige. Pedestrians wearing masks are generally stared at as if they have just landed from Mars.

On Sunday, five restaurants were closed down for failing to observe social distancing requirements. They were not fined, however, and will be permitted to reopen after passing an inspection, Per Follin, the regional medical officer with the Department of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, said.

Throughout the crisis Sweden has had enough intensive care units to deal with Covid-19 patients, the minister of health and social affairs, Lena Hallengren, said in an interview, referring to the disease caused by the virus. “We have 250 empty beds right now.”

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