Shunned by its Nordic neighbors for its coronavirus strategy, Sweden says there are ‘wounds it will take time to heal’

People play chess at a park in Stockholm on May 29, 2020, amid the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND

The decision to exclude Sweden from the lifting of travel restrictions between Nordic countries Finland, Denmark and Norway, following the coronavirus pandemic, “has created wounds that will take time to heal,” the country’s foreign minister told CNBC.

A decision not to implement a strict lockdown like its neighbors has meant that Sweden, which has seen a far higher number of coronavirus cases and deaths, has been left out of an easing of travel restrictions between the countries.

Since Monday, citizens of Nordic nations can largely travel to and from each other’s countries for work and leisure purposes, but Swedes are still subject to restrictions due to a higher infection rate in their country.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde told CNBC Tuesday that she had “mixed feelings” about the Nordics’ attitude toward Sweden at the moment, and that the move to exclude her country could damage relations.

“On the one hand we have had an absolutely fantastic cooperation with the Nordic countries when it comes to the repatriation of our citizens … Sweden took home 8,600 Swedes from all over the world with the help of our Nordic friends and we also took 1,500 non-Swedes with our flights, so this has been a fantastic Nordic cooperation,” she said.

“But on the other hand … I think that those people that have been very used to working as if there were no borders, have been given a very clear wake-up call that different nations (are being treated differently) and I think this will, in many people, create wounds that could be difficult to heal.”

“I’m not generally worried about the future of Nordic relations, I am genuinely worried that this has created wounds that will take time to heal, especially in the border area,” she said. Linde believed that tensions “will heal” and that the government would do everything it can to help, “but it might take a long time.”

No lockdown

The country of around 10 million people went against the grain in Europe, and much of the world, by not imposing a strict lockdown on public life when the coronavirus pandemic emerged in late February and early March.

Instead of shuttering all but essential businesses such as food shops and pharmacies, like most European countries, Sweden’s government allowed bars, restaurants and schools for under 16-year-olds to remain open. It did ban mass gatherings and visits to elderly care homes, which have seen acute outbreaks of the virus, and advocated social distancing, working from home and good personal hygiene. 

Defending Sweden’s strategy to the virus, Linde said the aim of Sweden had been the same as its neighbors: “To save lives and health and to keep the health system able to manage the pressure of the coronavirus, to mitigate the effects on business and work and doing this by a mixture of legally-binding measures and recommendations.”

“In two areas we can see where we have been most different from others. And that is that we have kept our schools open up to the ninth grade, up to 16 years of age, and we have not had a lockdown, meaning that people have to stay at home,” she said.

“But we have been very, very clear on keeping social distancing, hand hygiene, not traveling, not going more than two hours from your home, not going on public transport and also to work at home if possible, and we have made it economically possible for people to stay at home even with the slightest, slightest symptoms. And we can now see that more than 80% of people are still following those recommendations,” she said.

Nonetheless, the figures paint a sober picture of Sweden’s experience of the pandemic, compared to its neighbors. Sweden has recorded 52,323 cases of the coronavirus and 4,939 deaths while Finland, Norway and Denmark (which all have populations around half the size of Sweden’s) have seen far fewer cases and deaths. Denmark, for example, has reported 12,450 cases and 598 deaths and the other two neighbors even fewer cases and fatalities.

Linde said it was still too early to say whether Sweden’s approach could have been better, and that there were nuances to the outbreak seen in the country, compared to other nations.

“The week the virus broke out was Spring Break in Sweden and we had so many more international travelers, more than a million, coming to Stockholm from all over the world. We only detected, at that time, Italian and Austrian travelers and we followed them up by testing them. But now, later on when we know more about the virus, we could see that it was the virus coming from the United States, U.K., Belgium and other countries where we did not do this testing and tracing,” she said.

Virus doesn’t stop at borders

As countries around Europe are lifting more and more restrictions on public life, Sweden too is seeing its number of daily infections continue to decline.

The country’s Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told CNBC Tuesday that the situation is improving daily.  “If you look at the number of people being admitted to hospital, the number of people admitted to ICUs (intensive care units) and mortalities, all of these figures are either going down or at a plateau. So the epidemic continues but basically, it’s very much on a plateau.”

Linde said she regularly speaks to her counterparts in Denmark, Norway and Finland on a regular basis and that she hoped restrictions would soon be lifted, particularly after the EU had already recommended that member states lift all internal travel restrictions from June 15, and allow non-essential travel into the EU starting from July 1.

People sit on terrace tables at cafe in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Sweden is starting to look like a global outlier in its response to the coronavirus.

Bloomberg

Tegnell said that more discussion and understanding was needed around the the virus, noting that it’s necessary to look at other factors — such as at the amount of testing being done, the situation in ICUs and regional differences in infection rates — to gauge the risks posed by individual countries, rather than just looking at the daily rate of new infections. 

“It’s not a disease that we stop anywhere by closing borders, keeping borders open is very important for many reasons,” he said.

“There can be economic and also social consequences — families being split up, consequences for health in the long run because the economy gets worse. So many things happen when you close borders, and the whole concept of the European Union is very much about keeping borders open and that has been such a success.”

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