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As states like Maine begin to reopen portions of their economies, Sweden has emerged as a popular example for many. The perception is that Swedes are going about their daily routine, unaffected by the coronavirus crisis. In reality, however, there have been massive disruptions to daily life.
Swedes have been social distancing and working from home if possible. All major events, sports, theaters and entertainment are shut down, high schools and universities are closed with students doing their lessons virtually, and no upcoming graduation ceremonies. Borders with neighboring countries are closed, businesses like Volvo are making major cutbacks and all nonessential travel is restricted. Visiting retirement homes is forbidden in most cases, and most people in high-risk groups are in near full-time isolation.
Yet Sweden stands out in keeping grade schools, bars, restaurants, gyms and shops open, along with allowing people to gather in small groups. In essence, this is in the same vein as what Maine is transitioning toward now. However, Mainers and other Americans should be cautious of drawing comparisons with the Swedish case.
Why and how have leaders taken this path in Sweden? Many have highlighted that Swedes have a high level of trust in one another and that people generally respect and follow the rules. A country roughly the size of California with a population less than New York City also helps with distancing.
Yet aside from these, Sweden has some advantageous public policies and services in place to allow for such a liberal approach relative to other places. For one, Sweden’s health care system is a world leader, and it has the capacity to handle increases in patient volume due to the crisis. Moreover, unlike the U.S., health care is universal. No one is uninsured, regardless of employment status. This means that officials know that if people have COVID-19 symptoms, they won’t intentionally avoid seeking care and unnecessarily risk spreading the virus due to fears of going bankrupt with outrageous medical bills.
Second, Swedes also have the legal right to paid sick leave, meaning that workers can stay home for up to a couple of weeks if they start feeling symptoms, without fear of losing pay or getting laid off.
Third, Sweden has robust furlough policies — so instead of laying off workers, affected businesses can get the government to subsidize up to 90 percent of a workers’ salary. People can then remain on the payroll during the crisis, and businesses don’t have to retrain new employees post-crisis.
Finally, Sweden has a wide-spanning coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens, with support from two fiscally conservative and socially liberal parties. The government is not seen as politicizing the crisis, and scientists and health experts address the nation daily, not politicians. The opposition parties have not politicized the government’s policies, which helps to create consensus.
What can Maine learn from Sweden’s results? That depends on the outcome. Sweden has a relatively high number of deaths (more than 3,300), and as of May 15, more than three times the per capita deaths as in neighboring Denmark, and eightfold more than Norway. Older residents have been hit hardest (96.5 percent of deaths are 60 or older), and Sweden had several large, deadly cases of nursing homes infections. The roughly 24,000 reported cases are undoubtedly higher — just as in the U.S. as testing is still quite scarce.
On the other hand, the World Health Organization recently named Sweden a “model country” in response to COVID-19, and despite some opposition, citizens here are supportive. Confidence in the prime minister has nearly doubled since the crisis.
Thus far, there is no evidence that deaths have been caused due to schools or child care facilities staying open. The economy here will likely be less affected than in other places with more draconian measures, as unemployment is not expected to go above 12 percent.
Overall, time will tell the effectiveness of Sweden’s response. However, places like Maine should be cautious to emulate Sweden without its underlying health care and labor policies in place.
Nicholas Charron is a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. He is a native and summer resident of Maine and a graduate of University of Maine at Orono.