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Business as Usual? As World Locks Down to Fight Coronavirus Pandemic, Sweden Goes the Other Way

A sign assures people that the bar is open during the coronavirus outbreak, outside a pub in Stockholm, Sweden. (Reuters)

A sign assures people that the bar is open during the coronavirus outbreak, outside a pub in Stockholm, Sweden. (Reuters)

The Swedish government has adopted the policy of building “herd immunity”, the path that Britain set out on before a group of scientists warned that such a policy could lead to up to half a million deaths by August.

Sanjay Suri
  • CNN-News18
  • Last Updated: April 1, 2020, 12:22 PM IST
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The world is going one way in dealing with coronavirus, Sweden the other. No lockdown, only restrictions of gatherings of more than 50. Schools are open, public transport is running, cafes and bars are open with the restriction of table service only rather than crowding at the bar.

An advisory, and just that, has been issued for those above 70 to maintain social distancing. And people have only been advised to try to work from home as far as possible; no shutdown across work places. In a late development on Tuesday, the government banned visits to care homes for the elderly.

It’s not quite business as usual; many are working from home, and people across the country are reported to be practising a degree of social distancing. But this is a long way from a lockdown. Sweden offers no sight of deserted public spaces that we see now around the world. Its cinema halls too are open.

Sweden is not coronavirus-free. In fact, far from it. By mid-day Tuesday, Sweden was reporting more than 4,000 confirmed cases with 146 deaths. Sweden has a population of just above 10 million. The Swedish numbers in Indian proportions would mean 5 lakh confirmed cases with 18,000 deaths, and the Indian government still keeping schools, offices, shops and transport open. Cinema halls too, as Sweden is.

So why then is Sweden taking a different, and as some see, a dangerously different approach? The Swedish government has taken this path as considered policy, on the advice of government scientists.

The government is doing the unthinkable to many scientists in Sweden. More than 2,000 of them have signed a petition asking the government to bring in tighter measures over social distancing.

Chairman of the Nobel Foundation Prof Carl-Henrik Heldin issued a statement last week saying “we have let the virus loose… they are leading us to catastrophe.”

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This is the path that Britain set out on before a group of 229 scientists warned the government that such a policy could lead to up to half a million deaths by August.

The British government swung into an abrupt U-turn following that warning. And all of Britain now lives in the fear that its government could have lost precious time, and reversed its ways too late.

Anders Tregnell, the chief epidemiologist who has been shaping the Swedish government strategy, is adopting the policy of building “herd immunity” that British scientists had spoken of earlier, and which the government seemed to have followed for a while on their advice.

Under such a policy the virus should actually be allowed to spread. The logic is that this will not affect most people seriously; those who get it, and get over it, can then get on with their lives and with their jobs.

It threatens only the vulnerable who should be advised isolation. They can be welcomed back to normal living once the virus has run its course so that they can no more be infected, because they will interact with only those who’ve had it already.

The policy, says a senior doctor with the National Health Service in Britain, is not just dangerous but “immoral”. Allowing the virus to spread presupposes that the elderly, the ill and the weak can be blocked effectively from catching it.

If not, the policy opens them to a greater risk. It’s potentially a policy to sacrifice the vulnerable for the rest to get on with it.

This policy, its opponents among the scientific world in Sweden warn, could also place the youth at greater risk -- deaths from the virus have included a significant number of relatively young people.

And not least, who’s to say that catching the virus builds immunity that cannot be breached. The common cold is a virus, and people catch it again and again.

The Swedish government has built its policy on the argument also that no lockdown can be maintained long enough and fully enough to stop the spread of the virus physically.

Blanket prevention is not possible, only a managed spread is. That reasoning now faces the test of time in Sweden and in the rest of the world, in opposing ways.


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