Sweden: Recommendations first, restrictions last

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Sweden: Recommendations first, restrictions last

While most countries in the world attempted to fight COVID-19 with severe governmental restrictions, Sweden retained a high degree of individual freedom.

This article is part of our series on the social impact of COVID-19.

A unique approach to the pandemic

Sweden has been known worldwide for its unique approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. While most countries in the world operated with severe governmental restrictions, Sweden retained a high degree of individual freedom. The Swedish government doubled down on its approach which could be summed up as ‘recommendations first, restrictions last’. Although restrictions eventually tightened, they were still much more lenient than in many other countries.

Controversial from the start

The Swedish approach proved controversial from the start. In some ways, it had fatal consequences. The so-called Coronakomissionen, leading an investigation into Sweden’s response to the pandemic, criticised (among others): too lenient regulations; the initial response to the pandemic that led to high mortality among the vulnerable groups; a focus on the middle class; and a lack of mental preparedness among decision-makers. At the same time, it welcomed the fact that, in the end, Sweden had one of the lowest mortalities in the world.[1]

Low insecurity, high trust

But reliance on personal responsibility had significantly positive effects too. The lack of restricted measures made the impact on the Swedish economy lower. It also created a sense of trust in the relationship between the state and individuals. A study showed that Swedish residents suffered one of the lowest rates of job loss and difficulty making ends meet in the world. Sweden also has the fourth-highest level of trust in a national government, despite a drastic decrease in trust across Europe.[2]

Neither vaccination nor polarisation is a significant problem in Sweden

This might be among the reasons why Sweden did not have significant problems with vaccine hesitancy, with over twice as many doses administered than its entire population at the time of writing.[3] The pandemic seemed to have no significant impact on polarisation in the parliament, in media, or among the citizens.[4] [5]

“A shadow pandemic”

Nonetheless, the pandemic had a considerable impact on Swedish society in other aspects. In line with other countries, Sweden experienced the so-called ‘shadow pandemic’, with a substantial increase in domestic violence.[6] The initially high death toll among vulnerable groups led to their subsequent isolation, including significant restrictions in visiting rights in elderly care facilities and hospitals.[7] Mental health problems increased significantly too, with a rise in people suffering from anxiety and depression.[8]

Religious communities experienced a loss of revenue and an increase in creativity

While the general population fared relatively well economically during the pandemic, religious communities were more significantly affected. The limitation in physical participation in religious gatherings on the one hand, and the decrease of tax-related income in a depressed economy on the other, led to the worsening financial situation. This may lead to religious communities being limited to a smaller range of activities in the future.[9]

Nonetheless, during the pandemic, religious communities remained active in many ways. In the yearbook of the Swedish Agency for Support for Faith Communities, the representatives of different Swedish religious communities described the explosion of creativity among their members. As many pointed out, while their religious meetings moved online, this could not replicate the social aspects of physical participation. Nor did it help with anxiety and other mental health issues. Thus, a range of other activities arose in that place.[10] For example, the Jewish community of Stockholm ensured continuous support for Holocaust Survivors over WhatsApp, while the priests from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church called all of their members to offer support.[11]

Continuation, not disruption, characterised Sweden during the pandemic

Sweden’s unique approach remains controversial to this day. Nonetheless, while a significant upheaval, the pandemic does not seem to have significantly reshaped Sweden socially. The initial response to the pandemic could have been significantly better, but focusing on recommendations rather than restrictions allowed Sweden to soften the impact of some of the social problems that severely affected countries with a more restrictive approach. Rooted in the country’s long-standing relationship between its citizens and the state, it could not be simply used as a model for other countries with a significantly different social culture.

Ryszard Bobrowicz

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[1] Slutbetänkande SOU 2022:10

[2] Living, working and COVID-19 (Update April 2021): Mental health and trust decline across EU as pandemic enters another year (europa.eu)

[3] Sweden: the latest coronavirus counts, charts and maps (reuters.com)

[4] Oscarsson, Henrik, Torbjörn Bergman, Annika Bergström, and Johan Hellström. Demokratirådets Rapport 2021: Polarisering I Sverige. Stockholm: SNS Förlag, 2021.

[5] Interestingly, in light of the Russian invasion on Ukraine, the two main parties, Social Democrats, in government, and the Moderates, in opposition, started to collaborate in solving the crisis and preparing the country for challenging times. Kan kriget få socialdemokrater och moderater att regera ihop? – DN.SE

[6] Domestic Violence in the Time of Covid-19 • FREE NETWORK (freepolicybriefs.org)

[7] Ensamhet och hälsa under covid-19-pandemin hos personer över 70 år — Folkhälsomyndigheten (folkhalsomyndigheten.se)

[8] Ökad mental ohälsa under pandemin – Uppsala universitet (uu.se)

[9] Religioner i rörelse – årsbok 2021 – Myndigheten för stöd till trossamfund

[10] Samarbeta bort en smitta – går det? – Myndigheten för stöd till trossamfund (myndighetensst.se)

[11] Samfunden i pandemin.pdf (myndighetensst.se)