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Frontman Behind Sweden's Coronavirus Strategy Regrets High Death Toll

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sweden has remained largely open during this pandemic. The government has relied on residents to voluntarily keep their distance to try to contain the virus. But as Maddy Savage reports from Stockholm, there's growing concern about this strategy.

MADDY SAVAGE, BYLINE: This barbershop in downtown Stockholm has stayed open throughout the pandemic. Although, to promote social distancing there are fewer appointments.

JOHAN MARKSTROM: My name is Johan Markstrom. I'm into work to clean my desk and get a haircut. You can see that people are wearing masks, and they're, like, keeping their distance on the train, which is nice.

SAVAGE: But not everyone's so diligent. At several cafes in this neighborhood, customers are sitting close to each other. And despite a government recommendation to work from home when possible, some offices are starting to fill up. Eric Soderberg is just back from his lunch break.

ERIC SODERBERG: We are living almost the same way as we did before.

SAVAGE: Sweden's authorities say tackling the virus is a marathon, not a sprint. And their strategy was designed to last months, not weeks. The country's foreign minister, Ann Linde, insists most people are following the guidelines.

ANN LINDE: It is not going on as normal in Sweden. We have restrictions when it comes to how many people can gather. There has to be distancing in restaurants. But we don't lock people in their homes. We want everybody to be outdoors.

SAVAGE: The government hopes its strategy will help shield the economy. Unemployment is on the rise. But the production of goods and services dropped just 9% in April, not as much as economists predicted. Here's Johanna Savelin, another office worker in the neighborhood.

JOHANNA SAVELIN: I think it's good for the people who are working because more people get to keep their jobs than in other countries, but more people have died also.

SAVAGE: More than 4 1/2 thousand people have lost their lives with COVID-19 here - one of the highest figures in Europe in relation to population size. Charlotte Wahlrud, who's out having coffee with her daughter, says the government's strategy was a mistake.

CHARLOTTE WAHLRUD: We should have been taking it more seriously. I think we should have listened more, how other countries treated it from the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERS TEGNELL: (Speaking Swedish).

SAVAGE: That's Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist, who's been the front man of the crisis. In a recent interview he appeared to admit Sweden should've adopted stricter measures but later said his comments had been overinterpreted. He said he still believes in the country's strategy but regrets the high death toll. A recent poll found just 45% of citizens now have confidence in the government's ability to tackle the crisis, down from 63% in April. And as Sweden prepares to relax guidelines further and allow unrestricted domestic travel, its unusual approach is sure to remain in the spotlight. For NPR News, this is Maddy Savage in Stockholm.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "ALL THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.