COVID-19 and the Failure of Swedish Exceptionalism

'It can't happen here.'

Since the early days of the pandemic, my home country of Sweden has distinguished itself for its contrarian approach. While Swedish leaders never established an official policy of quickly reaching herd immunity, there have been no lockdowns. Schools, restaurants, night clubs, and non-essential shops have all stayed open. 

Not only have there been no mandates regarding facemasks, health authorities have downplayed their efficacy. This may have been understandable early on, as many health agencies around the world advised people to save the limited supply of masks for health care workers. The Swedish authorities, however, have persisted in arguing that masks are more or less useless, and their use is exceedingly rare.

While Sweden’s death numbers compare favorably to the U.S., they stand in stark negative contrast to our Scandinavian neighbors who introduced lockdown measures: Per capita, we have nearly five times as many deaths as Denmark, nine times as many as Finland, and more than ten times as many as Norway. In total, as of this writing, 7,514 Swedes have lost their lives to Covid-19, which works out to a death rate of 742 per 1 million citizens. The equivalent numbers for the other Scandinavian countries are 164 per million (Denmark), 83 per million (Finland) and 72 per million (Norway). There is, in other words, no doubt that Sweden’s approach has led to excessive deaths. 

Why did Sweden adopt this approach, and why was it not rapidly abandoned in April when it was clear that our neighbors were doing far better than we were? 

While there are many reasons, I believe a significant part of the answer lies in Swedish exceptionalism. Whereas American exceptionalism is about America’s unique place in the world, Swedish exceptionalism is about being immune to any disasters that may happen in the rest of the world. 

To understand this idea, you need to understand our history: We survived two world wars unscathed, two wars in which all of our neighbors were partially or completely occupied. While every generation of Americans has suffered at least one major war, Sweden has not fought a war since 1814. The last time Sweden engaged in armed conflict, James Madison was president of the United States. 

After World War II, we proceeded to build a welfare state that became the envy of the world. At the same time, other European countries dealt with everything from decolonization to communist oppression, and as our neighbors Denmark, Iceland and Norway sought the protection afforded by NATO membership, Sweden enjoyed a peaceful existence, carrying on our tradition of neutrality as the cold war raged on. 

With a history like that, it’s easy to become complacent: “It doesn’t happen here,” with “it being anything horrible—war, famine, riots, terrorism, assassinations. Those are things that happen in other countries, and which we watch happen to the rest of you on our TVs in our IKEA-furnished living rooms. But they don’t happen here.

As a result, Sweden has long been unprepared for any type of disaster. In 2018, when a heat wave sparked more than 50 wildfires around the country, Sweden ended up having to appeal to Poland to send firefighters to save us (which they did). Yes, we knew that more than 70 percent of our country is covered by forests. And yes, we knew that forests can catch fire. But surely they can’t catch fire here

Decades earlier, in 1986, when then-Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated openly on a street in Stockholm, the immediate reaction was denial. Sure, we all knew that presidents in America and other countries got assassinated every once in a while, but that’s other countries. Everyone, including the prime minister himself, was so certain that it couldn’t happen here that he walked home down one of the main streets of Stockholm late on a Friday night without bodyguards on the night of his assassination.

I believe the main reason Swedish authorities downplayed the severity was because they simply could not imagine that a pandemic could actually hit Sweden. 

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell is the Swedish equivalent of Anthony Fauci. Like Fauci, he is considered to be the “brain” behind Sweden’s strategy, and that has brought him considerable media attention. Tegnell’s track record during this pandemic has not been great. In January, he claimed that the virus would not spread in Sweden. In fact, the risk of contagion was considered so small that Swedes who were evacuated from Italy the following month were not even placed in quarantine. In April, as the pandemic raged with no end in sight, Tegnell argued against the use of face masks, contradicting nearly all international medical authorities. He also claimed in that same month that Stockholm was only a month away from reaching herd immunity. This prediction did not age well.

Throughout the summer, he claimed that there would be no second wave. To be clear, he conceded that there were signs of a second wave in other European countries. But, for reasons never quite made clear, he argued there would be no second wave in Sweden. He maintained this view when asked again in October, even as the number of daily new cases had tripled in a month. It would take another month before he conceded that the second wave was real.

With a track record like that, you would expect there to be outrage against Tegnell, and against the government who appointed him. Yet as of late October he enjoyed a 72 percent approval rating, which is the same share of voters who approve of the government’s handling of the pandemic. To reaffirm the belief that nothing bad can happen to us is, quite simply, a great political strategy in Sweden. 

The government did recently propose new pandemic legislation to give itself power to introduce the type of restrictions on shops, public transport and private gatherings that other countries have used. In practice, however, the government already had such powers. The Swedish constitution contains virtually zero protections for private property rights, and it does not delegate any particular powers to local governments. At most, the government may have had to amend the Communicable Diseases Act. The government always had the power to follow the rest of Europe into lockdown but chose not to do so. 

In introducing this legislation, the government seems to be attempting to rewrite history and claim that its hands have been tied all this time. Adding insult to injury, the legislation will not come into force until March 15, as the government awaits feedback from more than 100 consultative bodies before putting the legislation to a vote in Parliament. It is likely that the most vulnerable groups will have already been vaccinated before the law even takes effect. 

One generous interpretation would be that, while the legislation may not grant the government powers it does not already possess, it codifies these powers and provides a framework for future pandemics. This would make sense, except this legislation contains a sunset clause and will expire after just one year. Hence, unless there is a new pandemic at some point between March 2021 and March 2022, it will, in practice, have had no effect at all. 

Given that pandemics are unpredictable and that the coronavirus has shown what happens when a country does not respond in a timely and coordinated fashion, you would think that Sweden would take permanent measures to be able to handle the next pandemic better than this one. Yet, to do so would be to admit that we are not invincible, that this pandemic is not an exception to the rule. Each country has its own lessons to learn from the pandemic, but as for my own country, I wish we would finally understand that it can happen here.

John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and a doctoral student in economics.