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A Brave Approach by Sweden - In Conversation with HE Marina Berg

NOW! PEOPLE | 9 October 2020
Ambassador of Sweden to Indonesia, HE Marina Berg. Photo by Raditya Fadilla/NOW!JAKARTA

In order to cast some light on the much publicised “different approach” to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic that Sweden took, NOW! Jakarta’s Alistair Speirs asked the forthright and very positive Ambassador of Sweden to Indonesia, HE Marina Berg, exactly what the policy was and the thinking behind it .

Sweden decided to take a different approach to almost everyone around the world in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Can you please describe the approach and the thinking behind it? 

The overall goal is not very different from other countries; it is to limit the spread of the infection in order to save peoples’ lives, protect public health and ensure that health care resources are available. 

Let me take this opportunity to say that there is a misunderstanding that Sweden choose a radically different strategy than other countries. The fact is, we are using similar tools as most other countries – promoting social distancing, protecting vulnerable people, carrying out testing and contact tracing, and reinforcing our health system to cope with the pandemic. 

What may differ is that Sweden’s public health response is firmly based on expertise and lessons learned. All Government Authorities in Sweden are independent and autonomous. Measures are regularly being evaluated, fine-tuned and have been adjusted in response to developments on the ground. We are tackling the Covid-19 pandemic through both legally binding measures and recommendations. We have aimed for long-term recommendations possible to be followed by the society over a longer time period.

Sweden stands out for two decisions: it was decided early not to close our preschools, primary and secondary schools. Also, a decision was made not to have a full or forced lock-down of the society. Endurance has been the leading star, to make the strategy sustainable over time.

On top of that, a large number of other decisions and recommendations made Swedish life and society change radically due to Covid-19, but we decided to make detailed solutions and recommendations for different sectors of the society, not to have a general lock-down.

When discussing strategies, it seems like there are only two options, only two possible strategies to combat Covid-19 – lock-down or no lock-down. I would like to argue that it does not really give you the full picture. We have all seen a wide range of differences in the way countries have treated this pandemic. There have been a number of versions of lock-down. 

There was considerable scepticism and indeed concern that Sweden might have “got it wrong” and thus endangered their population. Did you ever share those concerns? 

The pandemic is still on-going, let’s not forget that. Only history will tell which strategy was the best. Perhaps there is no “one size fits all”. 

My concerns are more of a global nature. The pandemic has brought back development; in many parts of the world we see poverty increasing, democracy shrinking and human rights being less respected. When the economy fails the most vulnerable groups are hit the worst. When Governments are forced to focus on and put resources into combating the effects of Covid-19 there seems to be a lack of capacity in many countries to continue the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. I worry that these issues and specifically the climate is not on top of the agenda any longer. Remember, there is no vaccine for stopping climate change.

What was the feeling at home? Did everyone agree to the policies and protocols? Were there protests or accusations?

Life is not carrying on as normal in Sweden. Life has changed for so many people, the pandemic has had evident effects on Swedes as well as on the Swedish economy. Just like in other countries, many businesses are folding, and unemployment is expected to rise dramatically. Many people are staying at home and many have stopped travelling which also has had effects on the economy.

Economic considerations have never been the basis for the Swedish strategy for Covid-19. The Government has been forced to take several economic measures to mitigate the economic effects and there is no prognose, how quickly the Swedish economy can recover. 

Despite all this, there have been no public protests or accusations in Sweden. To trust authorities and thus follow recommendations are fundamentals in our society and culture. We see that a majority of the Swedish population are in fact continuing to change their everyday life to follow the Covid-19 recommendations. Endurance might be something that many of the Swedes have.

As we now reach the six-month stage in the battle, do you think the Swedish approach has been vindicated? 

At this point of time, it seems like our strategy has been sustainable over time, which has been the aim. My government is, of course, pleased that all the curves are pointing in the right direction when it comes to infections, numbers of patients admitted to ICU and the numbers of deaths. 

However, the pandemic is not over yet and all countries are different in population density, they have different cultures and government structures and were hit differently in time and size. Therefore, this trend of ranking countries in response is not really helpful at the moment. Present evaluations need more analysis and are at this point premature.

Why do you think no-one followed suit? Was this only applicable to a certain discipline of population and organisation? 

I refrain from commenting on the measures of specific countries since I am not the expert on every country’s specific circumstances. I believe all countries do what they believe is the best to fight this pandemic in accordance with specific circumstances. This is an extreme and unique situation where all countries – every day – learn more about the virus and the effectiveness of their response measures.

What are the final, well, nearly final, conclusions? 

Since this pandemic is far from over, and we continue to see new local outbreaks globally, it is premature to make any firm conclusions on successes or failures for Sweden, or any other country. We are all still learning about the virus and about which measures should be taken. It is important that countries share experiences and competences on a regular basis.

I would not be very wise to point out success-stories or failures in this global pandemic. One thing for sure though is that we are all in this together, and together we will be able to tackle the situation. We need to hold on to the health regulations and recommendations and be enduring. This pandemic is not a short sprint - this is the longest marathon we ever have run.

Many thanks and very good luck!