Photo: Pharmacy from ced Flickr photo stream

Recently I was gently but clearly reprimanded in my local pharmacy. I had gone with my chicken-poxy child to buy some anti-itch ointment. Sweden, like the UK, does not routinely vaccinate children against the varicella zoster virus.

‘It’s very contagious, you know’ the lady in the white coat said. (Or rather ‘Det är mycket smittsam.’)
‘Mmm’, I agreed. (Or rather ‘Aa-ar.’)
‘Myself, I’ve had it, but there might be old people … ’, lady white-coat indicated vaguely towards an older customer picking up a prescription.

This older customer had not noticed my spotty 4-year old, but lady white-coat’s implication was clear: how could I, through my reckless behaviour, endanger an elderly citizen’s life (given that she might not have acquired immunity)?

Sweden is a good place to be an older person, in that more of its gross domestic product is invested in its elderly citizens than in any other country in the world.

The average life expectancy at birth in Sweden is among the highest in the world and, furthermore, it has improved by 5.5 years over the last 30 years. Sweden allocates more human resources to the health sector than most other OECD countries, so it’s a good place to be a health-service user, regardless of age.

Care provided by municipal and county agencies supports older people’s independent living in their own accommodation without family and personal networks being essential. While such statutory support of independent living potentially preserves dignity, critics suggest that it engenders a less caring ethic in society: with ordinary people not held routinely responsible for the daily needs of their elderly neighbours and relatives, they can perhaps be ignored.  Care takes many forms: running errands or doing housework constitutes one form of practical care. But so too does isolating an infectious child, as was pointed out to me in the pharmacy.

The Swedish commitment to a just, fair and humane society, mediated by statutory institutions and funded via central taxation has been much discussed, including the ways in which is does not live up to its own ideals (see Andrew Brown’s prize-winning book ‘Fishing in Utopia’).

While there is no shortage of critics of Swedish health and social care, including its erosion over recent decades, the impulse to fairness, including equal opportunities to avoid chickenpox, should be lauded.