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Why might Sweden's Covid-19 policy work? Trust between citizens and state

22 April 2020
Lars Trägårdh and Umut Özkirimli

Article published in "The Guardian" on April 21, 2020

That coronavirus is colour blind and respects no borders is true enough, although far from being the great equaliser, it forces the poor to bear the brunt. And given the prominent role played by experts in epidemiology who speak in a universalising language of objective science and mathematical curves, attempts at containing or mitigating the spread of Covid-19 sound similar around the world.

Yet the responses differ significantly from country to country, even among richer countries; shaped by historical legacies, political culture and social mores. The Swedish historian Sverker Sörlin, himself a Covid-19 survivor, noted in a recent article that there was never just one global pandemic but many, each shaped by its own national logic. Sörlin was building on William H McNeill and his classic Plagues and Peoples from 1976, in which McNeill tried to show that epidemics mirrored each affected society. There is not a universal biological enemy waging war, these global viruses strike societies, as much as the individuals within them.

Indeed, the pandemic constitutes a huge stress test for countries, a test that brings to the surface their deep, sticky societal structures. Values, institutions and practices, that in ordinary times are partially hidden by global fashions and trends, come to the fore, protruding as safe rocks in a stormy sea.

For us – a repatriated Swede who spent 40 years living abroad, and a self-exiled Turk who has lived in Sweden but is now based in Spain – cultural collisions are a touchstone of our efforts to understand both global commonality and national difference.

We’ve always had our differences, but with coronavirus, we’ve also found ourselves subject to very different European pandemic regimes.

Spain, one of the worst affected countries in Europe, imposed a strict lockdown to slow the spread of the virus and ease the burden on already overcrowded hospitals. Confinement was not a matter of personal choice; social distancing became the law of the land and a matter of surveillance and policing.

Sweden opted for a calmer – and highly controversial – approach led by the state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. Instead of draconian lockdown, social distancing is a matter of self-regulation. Citizens were instructed to use their judgment, and to take individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control.

We were both convinced that the “Swedish model” could not be exported to countries such as Spain or Turkey, where levels of social and institutional trust are much lower. But could it work in Sweden itself? And why did Sweden choose to stray from the path followed by the many, including its Nordic neighbours? Here, our views diverged.

The itinerant Turk (also a Swedish citizen) was convinced that Tegnell’s approach was far too lax – considering the health risks involved – even for high-trust Sweden, where personal independence, including among the elderly, is cherished. In any case, lockdown was not only a matter of saving lives, but also mitigating the workload of overcrowded hospitals. The repatriated Swede, on the other hand, believed that an all-out war to save individual lives involved huge costs to the social fabric – beyond the health versus economy debate. So we decided to shift our attention to the societal consequences of different paths chosen.

For Sweden, a total lockdown was unsustainable in the long term. If schools and pre-schools were closed, for instance, parents would have to leave work to home-school. This would potentially make matters worse by removing workers in critical sectors such as healthcare, or exposing grandparents to the disease, not to mention depriving children of crucial time in school.

In a society where gender equality and children’s rights are paramount, these risks understandably touched a raw nerve. Lockdown might work for the middle and upper classes with comfortable houses, especially in societies with more traditional gender norms. In Sweden, schools are key institutions not least for disadvantaged children, and single and/or low-earning parents.

This raises the question of whether policy choices across the world are made on strictly rational, scientific grounds, or if they reflect culturally rooted constraints and possibilities. Take social distancing: it now appears to be an internationally shared goal. The crucial choice is between achieving it through commands backed up by threats of fines and arrests, or though recommendations that appeal to a sense of a shared individual responsibility.

In Sweden, the path chosen may be less draconian but it is possibly more demanding, since it shifts the burden from laws and policing to self-regulation. While social media memes at times suggest an endless after-ski party afoot in the hipster joints of Stockholm, for those of us who live here the reality is a more sombre balance between distancing and the remaining freedoms to move about and carry on a normal life, while supporting local businesses.

And to be sure, even in Sweden there are many who call for a more radical closure of society. It may yet come to that. But others continue to plead for continued calm, reminding us that the word for society in Sweden is samhälle, to hold together. They worry that the stricter measures entail the privatising of suffering by justifying social closure.

The Swedish experiment, however, clearly touches a raw nerve abroad. The choice though is not simply between individual freedom and authoritarian rule. In Spain, lockdown measures also enjoy broad popular support, and security forces spend more time organising ad hoc birthday parties for the elderly than issuing fines. But there too, voices of dissent are raised as the societal consequences of the confinement become clearer. “Free our children!” said Ada Colau, the leftwing mayor of Barcelona, in a Facebook post on 15 April, paradoxically just before the Madrid government declared that schools would not be reopened this term.

There is no doubt that what we will see – globally, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis – is the return of the state. The question is what state.

For the likes of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, who are busy exploiting the pandemic to further cement their authoritarian rule, the answer is clear: less liberalism and less democracy. But both the Swedish and Spanish examples show us, in their own way, that another answer is possible: the rollback of neoliberal democracy and the return of the social democratic welfare state.

And here we agree with Sörlin. It is wise to respect citizens as responsible, ethical beings, equal in their contributions. This may, in fact, be the best way to develop the reciprocity that is the hallmark of a high-trust society: mutual trust between citizens, and between the citizens and the state.