While the rest of Europe is in lockdown, Swedes are enjoying spring sitting in cafes and restaurants or going to the cinema. Sweden has 5568 coronavirus cases and 308 deaths, but they have not closed down their borders, schools for those under the age of 16, cinemas, gyms and even pubs! The Swedish government has imposed limited restrictions like hand washing for all, encourage working from home for those who are able to and self-isolation for the elderly if they feel unwell. Voicepk.net’s Munizae Jahangir interviews the Swedish Ambassador to Pakistan Ingrid Johansson to find out why Sweden has employed a different strategy to the rest of the world to fight the pandemic and not locked down as yet despite the high death toll.
Jahangir: Ambassador Johansson, thank you so much for joining us on the program. My first question to you really is, why has your government, the Government of Sweden, not really taken the approach the rest of Europe has and has not gone for a complete or even a partial lockdown? Schools remain open, restaurants remain open, there are shops that remain open. Really, what is the justification of not having a partial lockdown in Sweden despite the pandemic?
Johansson: The approach we have chosen is a very Swedish one. It’s one based on how our society works – the relationship between citizen and state. And the very, very strong tradition we have of respecting advice from public health experts. We receive daily information through all media outlets from the public health authorities on what we need to do as citizens to help in this work of containing the spread of the virus and to protect risk groups. So the approach is slightly different.
And it’s based, as much as possible, on previous experience and on evidence, what works and what does not work. And in very simple terms, you can say what are the main priorities? It is not so much to fight the virus itself because this has come to stay but to protect the most vulnerable groups, the risk groups, and that is mainly the elderly.
And also to make sure that the virus does not spread in a high, sort of, pace than what the health authorities and the hospitals can cope with. This is going to be a very protracted pandemic, we believe. It will take months. So the measures that are imposed must be sustainable over time.
And I’m only a layman in this field, I have no medical expertise as such. But what I have received as a citizen as advice is that I need to take care of my hygiene, I need to wash my hands, I need to be very careful not to get the virus myself. And to protect my near and dear that are potentially in the risk group. And I do that through social distancing. So that is in short, sort of, the background.
Jahangir: And yet when I did ask you for an interview, you were quite willing to come to the studio. So when you say social distancing, you mean “don’t limit yourselves at home”, perhaps “don’t limit yourselves completely”. What really does social distancing in Sweden mean?
Johansson: Social distancing mean(s) that you should not go closer to people than roughly one to two meters because that is as far as the virus in these small droplets that might come from you can travel. And this is enough to protect people around you.
One piece of advice that we have been given is that you should not so much think about yourself being contaminated but more that you should not contaminate others. You should not, yourself spread the virus on. And in that way, you are, sort of, on the safe side.
Jahangir: Now restaurants in Sweden remain open, schools remain open. I mean I can understand that children are less likely to get very, very sick with this virus. But how are you going to have restaurants open and ensure that people do not get sick?
Johansson: Actually, children can get sick but they are not in the risk group. And I think there are two main reasons why schools are not currently closed. One is that children are not so exposed to the consequences of the virus. We have had so far one hundred and fifty people dying from the virus. The average age–
Jahangir: Yes, that is a big number.
Johansson: –of that group is eighty plus. And so it’s not among the children. The second argument is that we have such a high level of the population participating in the workforce, that if we closed down the schools, you would have a considerable part of the workforce within hospitals… all these important, sort of… how do you say… professions currently, they would simply have to return home to take care of their children. That would slow down the society and the response to the virus in a significant way. They talk about between fifteen to twenty percent of the workforce in a healthcare system for example.
Jahangir: Now Ambassador, there has been criticism of Sweden’s approach to this pandemic. And there have been two thousand doctors, scientists and professors who have filed and written a petition against how the Swedish government has approached the pandemic, saying they are inviting a catastrophe in Sweden. How does the Swedish government respond to that criticism?
Johansson: Well, actually we look at the numbers, and the development of the pandemic currently looks very similar to other countries of Europe. And, (in) recent days it actually looks a little bit better. But then it can go up or down, I assume, over time. This will be a pandemic we will, sort of, have to follow for a long time. And I think at the end of the day, the conclusions have to be drawn afterward. This is a new situation, it’s a new virus, it’s a very complex situation.
What is important to understand is that life is not normal in Sweden. People do stay at home. People do work on social distancing. They are really careful in not exposing the elderly or other people that have a sort of, a health condition that could put them in the risk group. And it’s very actively so. And if you do visit Sweden, if you visit any part of Sweden today, you will see a much, much lower level of activity, just as you would in societies where there is a lockdown. And people are very motivated to follow the instructions of the authorities. We don’t need to legally impose those…
Jahangir: Your chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, if I’m pronouncing the name correctly, has basically said that you want to slow the virus down and spread it slowly. Is that what Sweden is trying to achieve and can you please explain that?
Johansson: Yes, it’s that famous line “flattening the curve” that we’re trying to do. And I think everyone in Sweden and I think elsewhere accepts that the virus will remain. Many of us will get this virus. It’s all about protecting the most vulnerable risk groups, that’s what’s important. And that is what’s going to also make our health authorities and hospitals cope. We should reduce the number that needs acute intensive care.
Jahangir: Ambassador, my last question to you – it’s completely unrelated – but a journalist by the name of Sajjid Hussain who was living in Uppsala, Sweden, has been missing from Sweden since March 2nd, and he had actually been doing very sensitive interviews with prisoners here who had been tortured. Have you been given any news about his whereabouts? And what is the police in Sweden telling you?
Johansson: Well… no, actually. The short answer is “no”. I have seen the news about the disappearance of Mr. Hussain and that case has been filed with the police. I’m as concerned as everyone else, but I’m also sure that the police and law enforcement agencies (are) working on this intensively to bring clarity to what has happened, and to bring him back promptly.
Jahangir: Well Ambassador, thank you so much for giving us your time. And we wish you all the health, and we hope that these times end soon and we can meet once again. Thank you so much for joining us on the program.
Johansson: Absolutely! Thank you so much, thank you.