Fighting the virus with personal freedom in socialist Sweden – Chicago Daily Herald

We know the world is upside down when conservative media start praising Sweden -- land of an expansive welfare state and the taxes to support it, not to mention climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Pictures of Swedes sitting in cafes having their coffee leave the impression that the lockdowns in America might be unnecessary and such imagery dovetails with the President's suggestion that some states need to be "liberated."

While it is true Sweden has chosen to keep schools, restaurants, gyms and other businesses open, it has also banned large gatherings and called for physical distancing, hand-washing, working from home, avoiding travel and contact with the most vulnerable. The difference is, authorities believe the people can make their own judgments in a society where culturally one is expected to put the community's needs before one's own.

In comparison to Illinois with a population of just over 12.6 million, Sweden has 10.2 million people. Illinois has had 41,777 cases and, as this is written 1,874 deaths. Sweden has had 18,177 cases and 2,192 deaths and more than 80 percent of those who have died have been over 70. These numbers are misleading because Sweden has been even slower than the U.S. to test and is only starting to ramp that up now.

For me, this is personal. I still have a significant number of first cousins there -- one who works in a hospital -- and I have had a regular back and forth with my cousin Lars, who is a retired school administrator. I asked him what he thought.

Lars notes that many Swedes feel epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (Sweden's Dr. Fauci) and Sweden's public health system and hospitals have generally done an excellent job. The hospitals have not been overrun and there is a high level of trust in the universal health system. All the parties in the parliament have rallied behind the government.

That said, the jury is still very much out and there has been some strong internal criticism of what is very openly a "herd immunity" approach. A group of the country's most senior epidemiologists have called on Tegnell to resign and the Prime Minister has acknowledged that they have not done enough to protect seniors. In addition, immigrant communities, that often live in more crowded households, have had high infection rates. In comparison to its Nordic neighbors (Norway, Finland,

and Denmark) that have stricter controls, Sweden's death rate has been anywhere from three to six times greater.

Anecdotally, Lars and his wife Ulla, say they don't eat in restaurants, don't travel, shop early in the morning, and go for walks. Lars' educational consulting business has become completely digital. His son, an administrative judge in Stockholm, and his wife have also largely worked from home. Lars notes that Sweden has an excellent broadband network, even in the rural areas of Sweden, and that Stockholm has an exceptionally high percentage of people who live on their own. Up to 75 percent in Stockholm can work from home, and cellphone data confirms that is what they are doing. All that promotes physical distancing

Sweden's unemployment rate has now hit eight percent, kept down by government programs. Lars believes, like many Swedes, that a total shutdown would have been "economically dangerous," but many businesses have paused operations anyway and forecasts say the economy will contract this year and perhaps grow just over one percent in 2021.

Operationally, Sweden is pursuing many measures that are similar to those in other countries, and, as such, life there is far from normal. The conservative media here do not focus on the cultural differences between Sweden and America and the virus does not seem to care either way -- it's just an opportunist. Don't focus on the pictures of Swedes in cafes. The numbers are the numbers and we can all decide for ourselves whether Sweden's approach (absent a treatment or vaccine) carries a price that, on balance, we would all be willing to pay.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

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Fighting the virus with personal freedom in socialist Sweden - Chicago Daily Herald

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