The Swedish Model: a shallow and unedifying view of Sweden’s no-lockdown COVID-19 strategy

“The Swedish Model” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 June 2020)

In March 2020, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus had already been circulating in Europe for at least two months already, and parts of France and Italy (especially northern Italy around the Po River valley region just south of the Alps), most countries there adopted lock-down of varying degrees of severity – with some countries adopting such an extreme version that even young children were not allowed outside the places where they lived – Sweden opted to follow an approach in which such measures as social distancing and appropriate hand hygiene would be recommended rather than ordered on pain of punishment or penalties; restaurants, pubs and cafes would still remain open, provided social distancing was practised; schools would remain open; and people would be more or less free to continue with normal activities. The Swedish government’s aim was to limit the spread of the coronavirus infection in the country without overburdening the Swedish healthcare system. Since adopting the no-lockdown policy, Sweden’s infection rate and mortality rate compared with several other European countries have been high, and the general global consensus is that these high rates of infection and death are the result of the no-lockdown policy.

Researched by Lisa Millar, who also provides voice-over narration in parts, this episode of “Foreign Correspondent” takes a similar view, that Sweden’s relaxed no-lockdown policy is in part responsible for the high toll the disease has taken among the more vulnerable groups in society, in particular the elderly in aged care facilities and refugees and immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. A large part of the film involves following different stories of individuals: a director of an aged care home with 350 patients; a Syrian Christian activist; a university professor opposed to the no-lockdown policy who sets up a testing centre in an immigrant neighbourhood in Stockholm; and finally Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who breezily tells his interviewers that Sweden is doing the right thing in striving to achieve herd immunity as he goes about giving speeches and reassuring people that the country is on the right track. He admits that Sweden has neglected its elderly and immigrant groups but takes no personal or other responsibility for the Swedish government’s oversight as he continues on his merry way.

In covering personal stories, the film provides no analysis of why the elderly and the immigrant community bear the brunt of the pandemic that has hit the country hard. Millar tells us that the vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 deaths are of people aged 70+ years, and with most of these people also in aged care institutions, they are unlikely to benefit from lockdown conditions. Indeed, in many countries that do have lockdown, the numbers of people in aged care places suffering and dying from COVID-19 are out of proportion compared to younger age groups and in some countries the median age of death from COVID-19 is in the late 40s. Had Millar stepped back from emphasising personal stories (which, while tragic in their own ways, do not tell viewers much about the nature of the disease as it affects Swedish society), and investigated the character of aged care institutions in Sweden, compared to their equivalents in, say, Denmark or Norway, she might have found something very disturbing: Sweden’s aged care institutions are the responsibility of municipal and regional governments, which have outsourced their management to private companies. Privatisation has led to these facilities housing several hundred patients, cared for by workers on contracts on low pay and working in sometimes quite appalling conditions. To scrape together an income they can survive on, many workers work at more than one facility.

The low income and lousy working conditions in aged care homes mean that such work attracts people who can find little other work in Sweden: these people turn out to be the very refugees and immigrants who themselves have been hit hard by the disease. On top of this, these groups often live in areas designated no-go zones by police, due to gang warfare and high rates of crime, and this means that government offices providing social services (and information about COVID-19 and how to avoid it or minimise its spread) in the languages of the refugee and immigrant communities are scarce. Refugees and immigrants frequently live in very crowded and unhealthy housing, with three generations in the one residence, and aged care workers coming home from working shifts at one or more places might bring the disease and infect their older relatives even if they themselves are asymptomatic.

In general, Sweden’s poor experience in dealing with COVID-19, and in failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens, is a consequence of decades of governments privatising what should be publicly funded and resourced institutions, subject to public accountability, and ignoring the needs of marginal groups in society and the discrimination and barriers that impede their socio-economic advancement. That “Foreign Correspondent” completely missed analysing the broader context which might have enabled it to find the link between the high infection and mortality rates between two groups of vulnerable people (the aged, and the refugees / immigrants from poor countries) but preferred to wring out weepy and emotional stories to attract viewer attention reflects very poorly on the program and on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Australian viewers expect a higher and deeper standard of coverage of national and global issues at the ABC and to see this institution adopting practices associated with trashy commercial television programs purporting to feature political or current affairs issues and analysis is indeed very sad.