Yesterday we celebrated the end of the ‘2-hour travel ban’ by going on a long ride on our Harley. It was lovely to be out all day but by the end of it we were both very stiff!
As we passed Mariefred, I spotted this little duck island, complete with tiny white picket fence and postbox! We turned round so I could take a photograph. As you can see it was a beautiful day and so nice to get out into the countryside. We saw loads more traffic on the roads but almost no customers at the usually popular country pubs and restaurants along the way.
For the past few months, no one in Sweden has been allowed to travel more than 2 hours away from where they live. This was to avoid spreading the coronavirus across regions, and applied particularly to Stockholmers travelling to rural areas to their country houses. Stockholm has by far the highest rate of infection and it was feared that they would spread the infection to other areas and also put a strain on smaller regional health care services if they became ill outside their home county.
Sweden has still not had a lockdown, which has led to one of the highest death rates per capita in Europe. People from Sweden are banned from travelling to many countries at the moment – for example Denmark, Norway, Cyprus, Finland – and are advised by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs against any non-necessary travel anywhere outside of Sweden. This means that many people are travelling domestically. It will be good for local tourism.
Over the past few weeks I have had quite a few questions in my inbox about what the situation is really like in Sweden. Several broadcasters – for example Carte Blanche in South Africa – have made documentaries about the Swedish situation, and most of them are critical to the Swedish approach.
Yes, Sweden does have a higher death rate than many other countries. But we have had no lockdown, and the total numbers for every country will only come in time. Only history will tell who was right. And each country is different so a one-size fits all global approach would never work.
Sweden, for example, is sparsely populated, with more than 50% of people living alone. It is a rich country with excellent healthcare, a national health system, is highly digitalised and has a population with high trust in the system and who follow guidelines from the authorities. The same cannot be said of South Africa, where I spent most of my life. So the same situation would never work there – aggressively flattening the curve would be the only way the crumbling healthcare system could cope with the influx of cases. But at what cost to the already fragile economy?
On the downside for Sweden though, there are way more long-lived elderly (over 85 years old) in Sweden than in other countries, and elderly care facilities have been hard hit. Partly because elderly people are vulnerable and partly because measures were not taken soon enough and strictly enough to protect them. But it is far easier for me to point fingers now than for the authorities to have realised in February what was awaiting them. I have read a theory that African countries will not be as hard hit as some European countries because their populations tend to be much younger.
Now that the two hour rule has been dropped, the remaining bans are on visits to elderly care facilities and of gatherings of more than 50 people.
Swedes have been pretty good about following the recommendations of the Public Health Agency of Sweden – working from home, not using public transport unless necessary, distancing themselves in public spaces. But after the long dark winters, everyone wants to rush out and have their summer jollidays as normal. School leavers want to have their parties to celebrate their freedom (oh dear if only they know that life just gets harder from here on out). And it has been obvious over the past week that summer-brain has caused people to throw some of their caution to the wind. But maybe sunbathers and revellers do that even during lockdowns?
One thing that Sweden has escaped with its more open approach is almost having to close down the economy. Shops, restaurants, parks, public transport, hair salons, thrift shops, primary and secondary schools, and even some movie theatres have remained open, as long as they are able to follow the distancing recommendations. This has meant that unemployment is not as high as it would have otherwise been.
Things are bad, though. Loss of tourism and local custom has led to many bankruptcies in the hospitality sector. Several large clothing and restaurant chains are in administration or have been declared bankrupt. Shops are closed, or open irregularly because of staff shortfall and loss of custom. The city centre is deserted. There is no tourism and so many businesses survived on that.
I think being able to work and to get out and about has been very good for mental health, as has being able to meet people at a distance. I am not sure I would be able to cope mentally with being stuck inside for months at a time and not being able to work. I have a feeling that PTSD and increased cases of anxiety will be a long-term result of this pandemic. My Facebook feed shows that many people are not doing well as the months go by and this situation wears them down.
In Sweden there have been at least six supplementary budgets allowing for higher unemployment benefit, for the state to take over costs of sick leave from day one, for furlough, for stimulus packages for small businesses, for retraining, for the dropping of the qualifying period for sick leave and unemployment. So the government is doing its best to keep things going. But at some point they will start running out of money to put in and measures to take. No one knows how long this will last or how many waves there will be.
I have also seen rather confused journalists from other countries who don’t understand the Swedish system. ‘Where is the Minister of Health?’ ‘Why is that nerd from an authority deciding the policy?’ ‘Who are all these people?’ ‘Where are all the politicians?’ ‘Why are they not stricter – what’s with all the recommendations and advice?’
Sweden has extremely small government ministries. Their role is to draft bills for upcoming legislation, and then to create ordinances once the legislation has been passed by the Parliament.
The actual carrying out of those laws is done by about 450 government authorities, which create ordinances and exercise public authority. These authorities range from Central Government Authorities of which there are about 250 (the tax agency, the police, the armed forces, the national agency of education, the schools inspectorate, the social insurance agency etc. Some of these authorities have a supervisory function), the courts (85), embassies abroad (107), agencies under the parliament (4), and the pension funds (6). These authorities receive instructions from the government in the form of annual letters of appropriation. Recommendations issued by the central government authorities are not optional. They are mandatory, although they do not carry sanctions.
The agencies who have been most active during the pandemic have been the Public Health Agency of Sweden – which advises policy and issues mandatory recommendations about distancing etc – as well as the Civil Contingencies Agency, The National Board of Health and Welfare, the Public Employment Agency and the Work Environment Authority. The National Agency of Education, and the Police Authority have also been involved.
The daily 2pm televised press conferences here only include officials from authorities. If government ministers wish to announce something, they will have a separate press conference at a different time.
I would be so interested to hear how my readers feel about the situation in their countries. Are you finding this whole thing hard going?