Europe

Sweden's approach to fighting the coronavirus includes a liberal amount of personal freedom

Sweden's chief epidemiologist says the country's relatively permissive policies are more sustainable in protecting peoples' health amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

After a long, dark Scandinavian winter, the coronavirus pandemic is not keeping Swedes at home even while citizens in many parts of the world are sheltering in place and won't find shops or restaurants open on the few occasions they are permitted to venture out.

The streets of Stockholm are quiet but not deserted. People still sit at outdoor cafes in the centre of Sweden's capital.

Vendors still sell flowers. Teenagers still chat in groups in parks. Some still greet each other with hugs and handshakes.

People sit in a bar in Stockholm, Sweden.
People sit in a bar in Stockholm, Sweden.
AAP

Swedish authorities have advised the public to practice social distancing and to work from home, if possible, and urged those over age 70 to self-isolate as a precaution.

Yet compared to the lockdowns imposed elsewhere in the world, the government's response to the virus allows a liberal amount of personal freedom.

Standing at bars has been banned in Sweden but restaurant customers can still be served at tables instead of having to take food to go.

High schools and universities are closed, but preschools and primary schools are still running classes in person.

"Sweden is an outlier on the European scene, at least," said Johan Giesecke, the country's former chief epidemiologist and now adviser to the Swedish Health Agency, a government body. "And I think that's good."

Other European countries "have taken political, unconsidered actions" instead of ones dictated by science, Mr Giesecke asserted.

Sweden has stayed open for business with a softer approach to curbing the COVID-19 spread than most of Europe
Sweden has stayed open for business with a softer approach to curbing the COVID-19 spread than most of Europe
AFP

It remains unclear how long Sweden's exceptional state will last.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, warning of "many tough weeks and months ahead," announced on Friday that as of Sunday, gatherings would be limited to 50 people instead of 500.

For now, the Swedish government maintains that citizens can be trusted to exercise responsibility for the greater good and will stay home if they experience any COVID-19 symptoms.

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Many Swedes are indeed keeping the recommended distance from others.

Victoria Holmgren, 24, praised the Swedish government's handling of the public health crisis as "very good".

"And it's partly because I don't think I could manage being inside the whole day," Ms Holmgren said.

'Lack of scientific evidence'

But some scientists have criticised the Swedish Public Health Agency's approach as irresponsible during a worldwide pandemic that has already killed more than 21,000 people in Europe.

In an open letter to the government, 2000 academics called for greater transparency and more justification for its infection prevention strategy.

Sten Linnarsson, a professor at Karolinska Institute, a prominent medical university in Sweden, said the concern centres on "the assessments and the course that the Swedish government has taken through this epidemic, and especially because there is really a lack of scientific evidence being put forward for these policies".

Sweden's current chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, argued that even if the country's comparatively permissive policies are an anomaly, they are more sustainable and effective in protecting the public's health than "drastic" moves like closing schools for four or five months.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden talks to journalists during a daily news conference on the coronavirus situation.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden talks to journalists during a daily news conference on the coronavirus situation.
AAP

Sweden, a country of 10 million, had a total of 3447 confirmed virus cases and 105 deaths by Sunday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

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