“The people of Sweden have suffered tremendously in difficult conditions. One thinks of all the family members who have happened to be unable to say goodbye to their deceased family members.”
Sweden’s unorthodox approach to the pandemic made it a lightning rod for those who support lockdowns and others who believe such strict measures are not sustainable on health grounds or worth the economic cost.
Nearly 7900 people have died from COVID-19 in Sweden since the start of year compared to 961 in nearby Denmark, 466 in Finland and 395 in Norway.
Adjusted for population size, Sweden’s death toll is about 10 times higher than Norway and Finland and about five times greater than Denmark.
However it is lower than other countries in Europe which opted for hard lockdowns during the first and second waves like the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy.
Sweden announced a record 8881 new infections on Thursday, local time, hours after the king’s comments were made public. Its case rate has been growing faster than most other countries in Europe over the past fortnight.
Stockholm regional health director Bjorn Eriksson also revealed this week that the usual capacity of the capital’s intensive care units had been breached.
“We are far beyond 100 per cent of capacity in intensive care,” he told reporters. “We are approaching almost double the number of available spaces.”
Sweden has drawn praise and heavy criticism for leaving restaurants, shops and schools open in favour of asking the public to voluntarily social distance and act responsibly. Health authorities have also actively discouraged the wearing of face masks.
But the government has been inching away from its light-touch approach over recent weeks by imposing localised restrictions and limits on how many people can gather in public.
Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist and architect of Sweden’s response, defended his record during an interview with broadcaster TV4 but conceded the country was in trouble.
“More or less all countries are struggling with this,” he said.
“We are beginning to approach breaking point in many different aspects. I understand that healthcare is having a very tough time now…the staff are worn out.”
An Ipsos poll of nearly 1300 voters published by Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter found support for Tegnell has fallen 13 points since October to 59 per cent. Support for the Swedish Public Health Agency tumbled from 68 per cent in October to just 52 per cent now.
Tegnell this week said he was “surprised” by the intensity of Europe’s second wave – echoing comments from Prime Minister Stefan Lofven who on Monday said experts had underestimated the risk of a resurgence.
“It was not like we were not prepared for something to happen again, but no one could predict that it would be with this strength,” Lofven said.
He conceded Sweden had failed to protect nursing home residents despite risks to the elderly being well understood early in the pandemic.
The European Commission’s autumn economic forecast – prepared before the continent’s second wave – forecast Sweden’s GDP to fall by 3.4 per cent this year compared to the EU average of 7.4 per cent.
Economic output was forecast to fall 3.9 per cent in Denmark in 2020 and 4.3 per cent in Finland.
Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson told a briefing on Wednesday that the economy had recovered from the first wave faster than anticipated. She said Sweden’s anti-lockdown approach had helped cushion the blow but stressed that was not the motivation behind the strategy.
“It has never been the case that the government has sat and balanced people’s lives and health against development of the economy,” she said.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.