Much attention has been given to Sweden for its distinct approach to COVID-19 among Western nations. As more jurisdictions wrestle with lifting economic restrictions, Sweden is praised and condemned.
People readily condemn Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s Social Democrat (Sweden’s NDP equivalent) government for not emulating China and for violating what Swedish academicians called the “lockdown consensus.”
For its less restrictive approach in letting the population build natural immunities progressively (herd immunity), the government was called callous, irresponsible and even cruel.
While life during COVID-19 in Sweden hardly goes on as business-as-usual, the country’s borders aren’t closed. Schools didn’t close. No draconian confinement orders were issued. Shops, bars and restaurants remained open voluntarily. There’s a ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people but domestic travel is unrestricted.
Government-issued guidelines recommend keeping physical distance, self-isolating when returning from abroad, working from home when possible and maintaining hygienic practices.
But people’s liberties haven’t been curtailed by law in the name of safety.
What’s more, the Swedish health system is far from incapacitated, as many had predicted.
And the government has gone about its business without the political overreaction found among those in the lockdown consensus.
The Swedish approach sought principally to protect the most vulnerable, even if more than half the deaths registered there have occurred in care facilities for the elderly, much like in other countries implementing quarantines, including Canada. There will need to be a serious reckoning about how we warehouse the elderly.
Conversely, those praising the Swedish strategy argue that even though Sweden’s death rate is higher than among its Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden’s results are consistent with the European average and are lower than in many similar countries with hard lockdowns.
The expected superior performance of the Swedish economy to locked down states hasn’t materialized. Government statistics and expert watchers note that Sweden’s economy is suffering as much as other European states.
Similarly, projections for the aftermath put Sweden’s economy contracting at comparable rates to locked down countries, with equivalent numbers of bankruptcies, job losses, damage to markets and supply chains.
For all the praise and condemnation Sweden receives, it’s too early for final evaluations in either direction.
It’s clear Sweden’s results so far aren’t the dark disaster many predicted, nor have they yielded the substantive economic fruits some expected.
Though unlikely, things might get worse for Sweden. But as immunity builds among its general population, possible second and third waves of infection should have less impact in Sweden.
The Swedish achievement, with great respect to the dead and suffering, may not protect more lives and save more jobs. Rather, the Swedish achievement in the face of international panic and internal moral pressures lies in remaining fiercely true to their political traditions and democratic institutions.
In maintaining its independence of action based on established scientific evidence instead of fear-motivated models, Sweden has preserved and strengthened the crucial bond of trust between government and its people. In time, it may become its most important achievement in this pandemic.
The government and governors trust the Swedish people. Swedes, in turn, trust their governors to protect them without succumbing to the temptation to run their lives and trample their traditions of liberty.
Those in government have not undermined the country’s legal foundations. They have not resorted to intimidating police actions or outrageous fines handed to people already hurting with no work.
They have not made state threats that essentially deprive oxygen to free expression, nor have they curtailed the freedom to earn a living and care for one’s loved ones.
There has been none of the crass settling of scores with industries out of favour with the partisan policy of an ultra-ideological government.
There has been no abusive attempt to grab powers well beyond all existing emergency legislation, giving individual government officials the use of unchecked power that under less panicked circumstances no one even would entrust to whole legislatures.
Maintaining and preserving that trust so vital to healthy liberal democratic institutions is a unique blessing a people can give itself, especially in times of crisis.
Canadians, and their public servants and elected representatives, ought to take note.
Marco Navarro-Genie is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and president of the Haultain Research Institute.
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