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Analysis: Is fragile support for Sweden's COVID-19 strategy fracturing?

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People enjoy the warm evening weather in Malmo, Sweden, Tuesday May 26, 2020. (Johan Nilsson/TT via AP)
People enjoy the warm evening weather in Malmo, Sweden, Tuesday May 26, 2020. (Johan Nilsson/TT via AP)   -   Copyright  Johan Nilsson/AP
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Sweden has announced a series of measures to ease restrictions over the coming weeks. From Saturday, people without symptoms can travel freely within the country. On Sunday, elite sports will return but without spectators, and next Monday, universities and upper secondary schools may reopen.

But hold on a second! I thought Sweden hadn’t gone into lockdown?

As we have explored here before, the country certainly didn’t impose a full lockdown, though substantial measures were taken. But was it enough? For months now a debate has raged elsewhere, while in Sweden, a tentative consensus seemed to exist. That the right decisions were being taken at the right time.

That fragile acceptance of the government and its scientists, however, seems to be fracturing. Yesterday, at the first party leaders’ debate in parliament since the pandemic began, opposition politicians went after Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, saying Sweden’s high death rate represented serious failures.

The country’s death rate per million remains below some of Europe’s hardest-hit nations, like the UK and Spain, but it is ten times that of Norway and eight times that of Finland.

Criticism has come from opposition quarters about testing and the lack of protective gear for care homes, which have been particularly badly hit by the virus. Meanwhile, a survey by pollster Novus showed support among the public is waning. The number of respondents who said they had “very or quite high confidence” in the government’s ability to handle the coronavirus plummeted to 45 per cent in June from 63 per cent in April.

And questions are being asked of state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. Recently, he admitted that too many people had died. “If we would encounter the same disease, with exactly what we know about it today, I think we would land midway between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did,” he said during an interview with Sveriges Radio last week.

Yesterday, Sweden’s public health agency conceded that around one million people, a tenth of the country's population, had travelled abroad in late February and early March, meaning hundreds of different people may have brought the virus back to the Nordic country.

It is difficult not to conclude that Sweden’s handling of the crisis has damaged its reputation abroad. Just yesterday, Slovakia, in announcing its border reopening, excluded Sweden and many others have done likewise. It is also possible that public trust in government, science and institutions will take a significant hit.

This narrative is not simply confined to Sweden. A senior scientist in the UK yesterday claimed that the death toll there could have been halved if the country had locked down only a week earlier. The government in Spain under Pedro Sánchez has been beset by infighting and opposition since mid-April over the decisions his precarious administration has taken. And in Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has confirmed he'll give evidence on Friday to an inquiry on why an early lockdown was not imposed in the Bergamo area, the epicentre of the country’s pandemic.

Sweden is still hoping that, despite the mistakes made in the past few months, ultimately it has still taken the right course. That the country is learning lessons and has seen higher rates of infection should mean that, in any second wave, it will be better protected than its neighbours.

As the virus continues to spread, and infections continue to creep up and claim more lives, it will be years, not weeks or months, before any judgement can be made on who got it right.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.