We Can Learn from Sweden’s Achievement in Protecting Its Democratic Traditions

Much ink has been assigned to Sweden for its distinct approach to COVID-19 among Western nations. As more jurisdictions wrestle with lifting economic restrictions, Sweden is both praised and condemned. 

People readily condemn 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 (the so-called “herd immunity”), the Social Democrats were called callous, irresponsible, and even cruel. 

While life during COVID-19 in Sweden hardly goes on business-as-usual, the country’s borders are not closed. Schools did not close. No draconian confinement orders were issued. Shops, bars and restaurants remained open voluntarily. There is a ban on public gatherings for more than 50 people, but domestic travel is unrestricted. 

Government-issued guidelines recommend keeping physical distance, self-isolate when returning from abroad, work from home when possible, and maintaining hygienic practices. But people’s liberties have not been curtailed by law in the name of safety. What is more, the Swedish health system is far from incapacitated, as many had predicted, and 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 full lockdowns, 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 those among its Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden’s results are consistent with the European average and are lower than in many similar countries with hard lockdowns.

Expressed in deaths per million inhabitants as of May 10, Sweden’s 322 compare favourably to Belgium’s 751; Spain’s 527; Italy’s 508; UK’s 472 and France’s 408. Canada’s, for reference, is 132. 

In percentages of infected: Sweden has 12.3 percent deaths; Netherlands and Hungary, 12.8; Italy, 14; United Kingdom, 14.5; France, 15; Belgium 16.3. Canada’s is 7.2. 

The expected superior performance of the Swedish economy to locked-down states has not materialised. 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 than locked down countries with equivalent numbers of bankruptcies, job losses, damage to markets and supply chains. 

For all the praises and condemnations Sweden receives, it is too early for final evaluations in either direction. But it’s clear Sweden’s results so far are not 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 in other countries favour 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 civil community. In time, it may become its most important achievement in this pandemic.  

The government and governors trust the Swedish people. Swedes in turn trusted their government and governors to protect them without succumbing to the temptation to run their lives and trample their traditions of liberty, without undermining their own legal foundations, without intimidating police actions, without outrageous fines handed to people already hurting with no work, without state threats depriving oxygen to free expression, without curtailing the freedom to earn a living and care for one’s loved ones, without the crass settling of scores against industries out of favour with the partisan policy of an ultra-ideological government, without the abusive attempt at grabbing powers well beyond all existing emergency legislation, without 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, specially in times of crisis.  

Canadians in Ottawa and in every province, public servants and the elected alike, ought to take note. 

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