Covid-19: Faced with the reality of a winter surge, Sweden is finally bringing in some restrictions
- Sweden has introduced new guidelines for regions as its coronavirus cases surge in line with other European countries.
- The country famously didn't introduce much of a lockdown during its first wave, and its death rate surged to one of the world's highest.
- The new guidelines, which include the capital city Stockholm, represent a change in approach, but it's still less strict than many European countries and it has also eased some of its earlier rules.
- The county's state epidemiologist, warned last month that Sweden was approaching a "critical point" as the number of new cases reported a day rose by 70% in a week.
- Some Swedes worry the new changes won't have much of an effect.
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Earlier this year, Sweden became Europe's coronavirus experiment when it refused to implement a harsh lockdown as the continent was devastated by the spread of Covid-19.
But its more relaxed approach has grown harsher in light of the worsening outbreak in Europe.
Sweden has now put five of its 21 regions under stricter guidelines as it faces the same problem as much of the rest of Europe: the virus is now spreading faster than it was at its first peak.
On October 29, Sweden's Public Health Agency announced stricter new advice for Stockholm, the capital, as well as the counties of Västra Götaland and Östergötland.
Residents are told not to attend or throw parties, to avoid indoor locations like shops and museums, and to avoid unnecessary trips on public transport. Workplaces have to take more steps to protect people.
It follows similar guidance brought in for the university town of Uppsala on October 19, and for the Skane region — which includes the major city of Malmö — on October 27.
Eva Melander, the doctor in charge of infectious diseases in Skåne, said at a press conference: "It's a very worrying development. We are in a completely different situation from what we were in only a week ago.. Now we need to slam on the emergency brakes to stop this development."
Sweden's unique approach
Instead of strict rules, Sweden gave advice. It recommendation that people practice social distancing, with minimal enforcement, and kept many aspects of life close to normal.
As some countries declared that people should stay at home but for a short list of reasons, those in Sweden were able to visit bars, restaurants, schools, and shops in a way that resembled normal times.
The goal was to work out a strategy that would work for the long term, avoiding both an economic meltdown and people becoming fatigued from following tough rules.
But its death rate rose to one of the highest in the world, with the country's elderly and care home population particularly badly hit.
Sweden managed to get its outbreak under control for the summer months — but now cases are rapidly rising.
Sweden's strategy has changed
Sweden's new guidance is again int he form of recommendations, without the legal force that is being used in the rest of Europe.
And the guidelines are still more relaxed than elsewhere in Europe, particularly France, Germany, and the UK, which announced sweeping new lockdown measures in the past week.
But they still represent a change for a country that had acted as a barometer for the rest of the world to see how closely life could resemble normal while trying to keep the virus under control.
Sweden implemented minimal rules when the virus had not started to spread within Sweden, and didn't make them stricter during its first wave.
The lax approach held even as its death rate soared, and some there accused the government of running what they saw as a cruel experiment.
The high death rate meant that most saw its strategy as a failure. The harsher regional guidance shows Sweden moving closer to the approaches taken elsewhere.
Professor Luke O'Neill, an immunologist at Ireland's Trinity College Dublin, told Business Insider: "Sweden is no different to anywhere else in Europe. Cases are rising again.
"The strategy they pursued didn't provide any added protection against Covid-19, but it did cost lives."
"We need to see how it all plays out and whether or not they will regret their earlier approach."
Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist and the driving force behind its approach, warned in late October that Sweden was approaching a "critical point" as the number of new cases reported a day rose by 70% in a week.
Sweden's Aftonbladet newspaper reported that, as of last week, coronavirus cases were increasing in 17 of the country's 21 regions.
And The Local Sweden reported that the number of critical care patients in the country has increased.
Reactions in Sweden
The strategy has enjoyed a lot of support in Sweden, even as some balked at the high death toll.
Asli Tamer Vestlund, who lives in a Stockholm suburb, told Business Insider described Sweden's strategy as "common sense."
"For us, the psychological benefit of living without Covid fear outlives any health risk we might have from the virus," she said.
She said that the decision to introduce new guidelines for individual regions " is a sensible approach as long as the individual authorities are acting sensibly and not making panic-driven and political decisions."
Others have less faith.
Jana Bergholtz, who lives near Stockholm, said the new guidance "hasn't lead to any real significant changes."
She said that "the streets and shopping centers were just as crowded last weekend (after introduction of the new guidance) compared to the weekend before (before the new guidance)."
She noted that Sweden stands out from other countries in saying that asymptomatic spread only plays a "minor part" in how the virus spreads between people. She also pointed to its guidance for how to isolate, which is less strict than elsewhere.
Sweden is also lifting some restrictions
Even as many countries go into full, nationwide lockdowns, Sweden has lifted some of its restrictions.
It said that elderly people no longer need to isolate themselves — noting that isolation could itself harm their health.
It has also eased the limits on how many people can attend larger events.
Lena Hallengren, Sweden's health minister, said: "Daily life cannot be as it was before the pandemic."
"But there are many ways of living that are not just surviving."
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