Our departmental webmaster in Łódź asked me to write this piece from 23 April about my impressions of the Swedish response to COVID19. I’m posting it here too.
As I write these lines I have been distancing myself from society for 39 days, since Monday 16 March. Voluntarily, because I live in Sweden. Our government’s approach to containing the pandemic has been discussed quite a lot internationally. Before I go into that, let me describe my personal experience.
The big change for me is not that I work from home. That’s what I’ve done mostly for many years as a research scholar without a university office. Instead, the biggest thing is that my 16-year-old daughter’s high school lessons are now all online, so she is also home all day, five days a week. We get along really well and it’s frankly an improvement of my circumstances. Another change is that I have only been once to central Stockholm and the Academy of Letters’ research library, and currently the library is closed except by special appointment. And I buy groceries for my elderly mother. My father and his wife have stubbornly turned down my offers to shop for them.
My work has continued as planned, without any major frustrations. I have a pretty good library of my own, the most important Swedish archaeology databases have been online for decades, and these days you can get a lot of new journal papers in PDF format online or simply by emailing one of the authors. I’ve submitted three pieces of writing in these quarantine weeks.
When I take walks and cycle in the Erstavik woods nearby I meet more people than usual. We nod and say hi to each other, but we keep our distance. My parents also go out walking a lot. In Sweden, most of us feel that we need to avoid crowds, but not necessarily sit indoors and wait. My boardgaming group still convenes every weekend, but we have moved to my buddy’s house that is better situated for people to reach it on foot or by bicycle. Nobody wants to use public transport much. We figure that us meeting three “unnecessary” people every week won’t change the progress of the pandemic, and it does a lot for our mental well-being.
As for the official Swedish policy, I understand that the main difference to what other countries do is that going out and meeting people isn’t actually forbidden here. It’s just very strongly discouraged, for reasons that are very clearly explained. And events with more than 50 participants are forbidden for the time being. Some important reasons for this policy, as I understand them, are:
- By design, Swedish law makes it really difficult to impose a long-term general curfew with sanctions against those who break it. It’s a civil liberties issue.
- In the long term, we have to build herd immunity to the virus either by infection or by vaccination. We can’t afford to sit around at home until mid-2021 when scientists hope to have a vaccine ready for mass production. You can stop the pot from boiling over temporarily by putting a really heavy lid on it, but sooner or later the lid will fly off. It’s better to turn down the heat and let off the steam a little bit at a time. After a quiet period, there will be a second wave of the pandemic. How high that wave will go depends on herd immunity.
- Swedish people largely trust our government, and our government largely trusts our scientific authorities. So when the government tells us that the scientists think it’s really important to avoid crowds, then most of us act accordingly. We don’t view this as a policy driven by ideology. It’s not a partisan issue. I would go along with it even if I hadn’t voted for the party that currently governs the country.
- If you close daycare centres and schools for young children, then someone has to stay home with those children. That someone will often be their dad who is a nurse, their mother who is a doctor, or their grandmother. This will leave you with insufficient hospital staff and a lot more infected grandmothers in intensive care.
- If you close down your national economy too severely for too long, then even if you don’t suffer many dead during the first wave of the pandemic, everyone will be in extremely poor financial shape when the second wave hits. This can prove lethal in itself.
Of course, there are particular problems in Sweden too. The most important one is that a lot of our very elderly people are in care homes, and the care workers there are generally poorly paid and cannot afford large apartments or cars. So it is a tragic coincidence: the people who run the greatest risk of dying from the virus are cared for by the people who have the greatest difficulty in distancing themselves from crowds: they ride the subway from their crowded homes to work. With predictable results.
A sillier problem is that people have been hoarding goods. First it was pasta and toilet paper, which is ridiculous because Sweden is well supplied with wheat and has one of the world’s largest and most efficient paper industries. The last thing Sweden will ever run out of is toilet paper. But when people calmed down about that, they started hoarding baking yeast. And apparently the one single company that makes yeast in Sweden does not have production capacity enough to capitalise on this sudden enormous rise in demand. But I am OK, I always have a couple of packets of powdered yeast sitting in the cupboard.
Last week was the first one since the pandemic reached Sweden that the number of new intensive care admissions for covid-19 shrank – by 11% . I hope this means that we’re past the crest of the first wave now. We can’t go back completely to normal until after the second wave. And whether our policy is better or worse or indifferent compared to those of other countries, nobody can tell until a couple of years from now.
Update 28 April: ICU admissions have continued to decline: -15% last week. We’re past the crest of the first wave. Phew!