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Are care homes the dark side of Sweden’s coronavirus strategy?

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Are care homes the dark side of Sweden’s coronavirus strategy?
Copyright  FIYLE via EVN
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Care homes in Sweden have come under the spotlight for their high number of COVID-19 deaths.

Figures from the Public Health Agency show that almost half of the country's fatalities linked to coronavirus have happened in residential homes.

Some health care workers say a reluctance to send patients to hospital has cost lives.

It’s not a phenomenon limited to Sweden. Residents of nursing homes also account for a large share of fatalities in countries like France, Spain and Ireland.

But Sweden hasn't applied the same stringent lockdown measures that many other European Union countries have, and that’s drawn both attention and criticism.

The death toll in care homes may be now showing the limits of the country’s relatively relaxed approach to coronavirus containment.

Compared to its Nordic neighbours, Sweden's death toll is more than three times that of Denmark, Finland, and Norway.

And some Swedish citizens have accused authorities of not providing elderly residents with the medical help they may have needed.

When Moses Ntanda was diagnosed with COVID-19, his family begged the local authority and the staff at his nursing home to take him to hospital.

"They said that’s not how they handle it when the old people get corona. They take care of them in the home instead of sending them to the hospital. And that he is not in need of hospital care. But the truth was he actually was in need of hospital care," Ntanda’s niece, Juliana Jihem, told Euronews.

Just days later, Ntanda died alone in his room at the nursing home.

For his family, grief came with anger at the authorities’ management of the crisis.

"They think that the strategy that they are using is really good and that it is working. But if it is good, how come so many are dying?" Jihem asked.

What may have gone wrong in Sweden's care homes?

A couple of factors could be at play, according to public health experts.

People working in nursing homes don’t have the same level of education and training as those working in hospitals.

Many of them tend to come in and out of these jobs, and there are suspicions that some entered their jobs without receiving proper medical training or proper protective gear.

Workers may also have moved between patients who might have been infected and others who were not, contributing to the spread of the virus.

Sweden has urged the public to act responsibly and practise social distancing, but it has so far steered clear of ordering strict quarantine and lockdown measures.

Some of the country’s medical experts claim that has been a dangerously loose strategy.

"We have one of the highest death rates in the world, which is sad," said Dr Stefan Hansson, an expert in international health. He estimates that around two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths in the country could have been avoided with a more stringent lockdown.

Swedish officials now admit that imposing a ban on visits was not enough to protect the elderly from the spread of the new coronavirus.

"There are a lot of different aspects to our approach. Protecting the elderly in the elderly homes was just one of them. That approach did not work very well," said Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist.

"We are all aware of that. We are now trying to improve that approach as much as possible in collaboration with the people running these homes."

Sweden's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ann Linde, insists the country has overall fared decently in the fight against coronavirus.

”So far, we have managed with one of our goals, and that is to flatten the curve of the virus spread and also making it possible for the health care system to cope in this very strong challenge," she said.

"But for every person who has died of this terrible pandemic, it's, of course, a great sorrow and pain for all the families. And we will, of course, try to see why did the virus spread in the elderly care."

You can watch Per’s report in the video player above.