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Coronavirus: Sweden stands firm over its controversial COVID-19 approach

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Sweden is holding firm over its coronavirus strategy
Sweden is holding firm over its coronavirus strategy   -   Copyright  Andres Kudacki/AP Photos
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Laughing couples in open restaurants and friends socialising in city parks - Sweden's approach to the coronavirus pandemic is almost unique in Europe.

The Scandinavian country has raised questions for its handling of the global health crisis, with the government favouring a strategy of mitigation - allowing COVID-19 to spread slowly without overwhelming the health system.

Prime minister Stefan Löfven has urged the country's citizens to behave “as adults” and not to spread “panic or rumours”.

But the nation's daily coronavirus death toll jumped by close to 100 both on Tuesday and Wednesday, raising fears that the outbreak might be spreading.

The authorities have been accused in recent weeks, both internationally and nationally, of endangering the lives of citizens because they have not taken strict enough measures.

A study published in the medical journal The Lancet indicated that "the initial slowness of reaction from countries such as the UK, the US and Sweden now appears to be increasingly unwelcome".

The UK has since abandoned the "flexible" approach it had also initially adopted in response to the pandemic.

On Saturday, Swedish media had reported that the country's government was seeking more powers to implement a lockdown and change its containment status.

But the country's public health authority, holding a press conference on Monday, did not impose any further restrictions.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell reiterated that the spread of infection to elderly residents in Sweden is a major problem, adding that "when I talk to my Nordic colleagues, they do not have the same problem there".

Sweden's public health authority has identified particular risk groups of COVID-19, including those aged over 70, and those with underlying illnesses.

But the authority added that "since the virus is new, we still do not know enough about which groups are at risk of severe illness".

In a statement to Euronews, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it recommends a range of measures for countries to follow during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These include "testing, physical distancing, isolation of positive cases and quality hospital care for those who need it."

"Each country decides what actions to take, based on their own situation and the different stages of the outbreak they are facing," said a WHO spokesperson for Europe.

"These decisions must take into account many factors including resources and capacities as well as community engagement and trust."

Business as usual?

Sweden, unlike many neighbouring European countries, has not imposed quarantine on its population.

Instead the government has called on citizens to "take responsibility" and follow the recommendations of the health authorities.

"We are not doing business as usual in Sweden," health minister Lena Hallengren told an international press conference on Thursday (April 2).

People over the age of 70 and those deemed "at risk" are encouraged to stay at home, and high schools and universities, which have been closed since mid-March, are being encouraged to offer distance learning courses.

On Monday, Anders Tegnell said that working conditions in Sweden should allow staff the opportunity to work from home "if they have the slightest symptoms".

The authorities have repeatedly recommended that people with symptoms of the virus should isolate themselves.

Among the strictest measures so far are a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people and a ban on visits to retirement homes.

"The government's response has been focused on trying to limit the spread to elderly people," said Euronews reporter Per Bergfors Nyberg, in Stockholm.

"Sweden does not want a general lockdown because they would lose 20-25% of general healthcare workers, who are so badly needed”.

"This has meant many people have returned to Sweden from foreign countries to live a somewhat-normal life".

A total of 687 people have died from COVID-19 in Sweden, the Public Health Agency's said on Wednesday, with 8,419 confirmed cases so far.

However, the number of diagnosed cases may reflect only a fraction of the actual number of infections, as Sweden tests only serious cases and health workers.