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Swedish Approach To The Pandemic: Is It Working?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden has stood out as a country that's taken a different approach. It never went into lockdown. Its businesses were not ordered shut, not even gyms or restaurants. And its day care centers and schools mostly stayed open, although Swedish authorities did ban gatherings of more than 50 people. To date, about 5,800 people have died of COVID-19 in Sweden, a country with a population of 10 million. Almost half of them died in April. Journalist Emanuel Karlsten says it was the deadliest month Sweden had seen in decades.

EMANUEL KARLSTEN: That was, you know, a rough time. And that, I think, made a lot of people, you know, question, of course, the authorities and what - the strategy that we were having.

PFEIFFER: But starting in May, deaths began to fall. And they continued to fall through the summer, even as Swedes gathered in more crowded places like beaches and restaurants and mostly without masks.

KARLSTEN: Right now in Sweden, we have almost no deaths and very little spread of the disease at all.

PFEIFFER: But Karlsten said these last six months in Sweden have been far from normal.

KARLSTEN: I would think that most Swedes would agree with me when I say that life has been very different. But it has been different because we have been abiding under the recommendations that was put into place by the authorities.

PFEIFFER: What kind of recommendations?

KARLSTEN: Well, they recommended us to stay at home, to work at home. We didn't meet friends or relatives, especially the older relatives. We were kind of into self-isolation, I would say.

PFEIFFER: So were there few or no mandates from the country, but there were recommendations, and Swedes have been very obedient about following those recommendations?

KARLSTEN: Yeah, that's how you can conclude it. Yeah. We have this tradition of trust with our authorities. It's been like this for decades, kind of forever I guess. We could see this especially during the pandemic, actually, that the trust to our authorities even rose, you know? And you can almost see it, like, soar from March to April. You could see the trust soar up to 70%. You know, that's incredibly high.

PFEIFFER: Has that left Swedes feeling that their country's approach was the correct one?

KARLSTEN: Well, in a sense, yes. But I think all of us agree that we made this error in thinking that we could, you know, protect the elder. That's also been what the authority's been saying, that we failed to protect the elderly because 90% of those that has been dying from COVID-19 or with COVID-19 has been 70 years or older. And a lot of them has been in, you know, nursing homes, elderly homes and things like that.

PFEIFFER: Emanuel, is there enough data from Sweden available yet for public health officials to conclude whether its handling of the pandemic can be called a success or at least more successful than many other countries?

KARLSTEN: I don't know if there's enough data yet. I think we'll have to wait until after this autumn. To me, I've been following this so closely. And it's just weird why the disease is, you know, going away. We don't have enough antibodies to talk about any herd immunity. We haven't, you know, kept distance during our summer. Probably, we've been closer to each other now during the summer than any time since March. And still, the disease does not spread. It's pretty much stopped in Sweden.

PFEIFFER: I think that reinforces how perplexing this virus is and how much...

KARLSTEN: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...We still don't understand about it.

KARLSTEN: Yeah it's - and, you know, Stockholm has been so heavily infected by the virus, but so many other cities in Sweden have not. And that's also weird because, you know, Stockholm is the hub of Sweden. We all go there. Everybody goes there and, you know - for the day and goes back. But still, it's mainly been in Stockholm that the disease has, you know, spread.

PFEIFFER: In the United States we're approaching 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus. What is the Swedish perspective on how the U.S. is handling the pandemic?

KARLSTEN: That's difficult to say, the whole Swedish perspective. But in Sweden, we don't have a great view of your president. The trust in Donald Trump in Sweden is not very high. And we've seen, you know - we followed the reports about the claims that he has been doing and so on. So it's kind of, you know - I don't know what to say. It's (laughter) - I'm glad I'm not an American, and perhaps that's what I can say.

PFEIFFER: That's journalist Emanuel Karlsten in Gothenburg, Sweden. Thank you for talking with us.

KARLSTEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.