Photo: Copyright Chris Yuill

Libertarian and conservative commentators extol Sweden as an alternative model for dealing with the COVID pandemic that steers away from the lockdowns with which we are familiar in the United Kingdom and the United States.  Elon Musk and Toby Young, for example, have posted their support on Twitter for what they saw as the less coercive approach Sweden has taken. In this libertarian reading of Sweden its citizens are presented as free to make their own decisions as to their wellbeing without authoritarian government edicts and unshackled from a draconian lockdown. Sweden is also cast as successfully walking the tightrope of containing the virus while simultaneously protecting its economy.  And for some libertarians, though lacking in any hard evidence, Sweden has achieved the mystical goal of herd immunity.

But we must be very careful about accepting this interpretation of what is occurring in Sweden. Many people (not just on the political right but also the left) get Sweden plain wrong. Why?  It all boils down to correctly understanding the unique relationship between Swedish citizens and the Swedish state.  In the UK political context there are well established positions which regard the state and the individual as exclusive and antagonistic entities, with the state depicted as needing to be shrunk to allow the individual to flourish.  Trying to get our Anglo-Saxon heads round individualism being realised through the state requires effort.

Drawing from Lars Trägårdh’s analysis of Swedish society and his concept of ‘statist individualism’ we find that  Sweden has a particular, if not unique, relationship between state and citizen that has developed through a particular local history.  It is a relationship where the state seeks to maximise individual gain, where the social agent is free from the emotional and legal claims of the family, religion and anything else. As Trägådh pithily puts it, ‘… the state is conceived as the liberator of the individual from such ties of dependency.’

Swedes, he claims, are hyper-individualists. In the World Value Surveys Sweden reports with high levels – if not the highest levels – of self-expression anywhere. They long to be free of any dependency whatsoever.  That aim is realised through state policies geared towards the individual.  High levels of social security are one policy, as are laws that enshrine equality, plus a taxation system that reduces the interdependency of families with separate taxes for spouses.  Or put another way, the state has your back at all times so you can make the most of your life.

High levels of trust are part of the statist individualist package.  Swedes trust their government and their authorities to do well by them. So, when they make a suggestion Swedes are happy to comply.  Formal, and what could seen as coercive means, are not always necessary. While it is therefore correct that Sweden has no formal lockdown, beyond limitations in restaurants and public gatherings, it was not because of a neoliberal concern with the sovereign individual, but because of that state-individual relationship.

If we think of a COVID lockdown as meaning a pattern of behaviours and practices rather than a legal imposition then the Swedes did lock down.  They reduced their travelling, washed their hands, reduced contact with others and worked from home.  All sounding rather familiar?  They did so because they trusted their officials, trusted the government.  There was therefore no need to put the same raft of formal measures in place that we saw in the United Kingdom.  Since the authorities were providing guidance then it must be correct.  And if self-isolation was required then the high-levels of Swedish social security would be there to support someone through anytime away from work.

In many respects the actual everyday reality of life in Sweden is not so different from the United Kingdom. Bright tape and directional arrows guide shoppers around stores, restaurants can only seat limited numbers of social distanced diners, and large events of more than 50 people are not permitted.  There are even local lockdowns in place – but again because of that unique state-individual relationship they can operate voluntarily.

So, if even if we were to accept that Sweden has been more successful (whatever that means) in controlling the COVID virus it is doing so not because it has no lockdown.  It has done so because it has been very Swedish, following a social and cultural pattern that would be impossible to replicate in other societies.  Cherry picking elements of other society’s approaches to suit one’s own ideology will not get us very far in trying to formulate effective polices.

And herd immunity has nothing to do with it either.  It was never a formal aim of the Swedish approach.  Tegnell, the Swedish State Epidemiologist who has formulated Sweden’s response, has flatly denied that was ever his thinking. They were concerned with not overwhelming their hospital system.  Though others within Sweden have pointed to herd immunity as an implicit aim that guided the Swedish approach.

My sense is that claiming Sweden followed a herd immunity approach was a projection onto Sweden of what libertarians and some Conservatives wanted in their own countries.  They misunderstood what was happening there for the reasons I’ve outlined here.  They did not fully understand that vital tight relationship between the state and individual.  Instead they only saw through their neoliberal lens individuals making their own way through the pandemic. Evidence also suggests that even if it was an official aim then herd immunity has not been achieved.  There are many other viruses out there (measles, yellow fever, TB) that have been around for a long time that we cannot develop a protective herd immunity as the consistently insightful Professor Devi Sridhar has pointed out.

Has the Swedish approach workedSweden’s economy has not suffered has much as Britain’s, but its cumulative deaths per million is worse than its comparable Scandic neighbours. But that judgement call has not been my concern here. My aim here was to refute the trope of Sweden as engaging in some free-wheeling libertarian approach to the virus.  It has done nothing of the kind.  It has followed an approach that can only happen in Sweden.

Time will tell what worked and where. To do so will require epidemiology and the bio-sciences but also a strong and necessary input from the social sciences.  Understanding the social and cultural dynamics in which a virus spreads and how populations can take effective action is vital for learning how to control future pandemics.