COVID-19 and The Swedish Exception

Bruce Bawer, Like its immigration policies, Sweden’s approach to the coronavirus sets it apart from its neighbors. What’s the endgame?

A few weeks ago, while other countries around the world were locking down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK and Sweden chose to go with business as usual: keep everything running, act as if nothing’s wrong, let people hold parties and meetings and candlelight suppers. In response to a public outcry and a growing sense that the nation was barreling toward disaster, British officials soon backed off from this policy. But Sweden, on the advice of top government epidemiologist Anders Tegnell – described by Reuters as “only months ago a little known civil servant but now rivalling the prime minister for publicity” – stuck to its guns. Hence the denizens of IKEA-land are still going to work, kids are still going to school, and shops and bars and restaurants and gyms and barbershops are still open.

To be sure, this approach has its share of credentialed and outspoken domestic critics. Epidemiologist Joacim Rocklöv has called it “a big and risky experiment with the entire population that could have a catastrophic outcome.” Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, a virologist at the Karolinska Institute, used the same word: Sweden’s government, she charged, is “leading us to catastrophe.” Meanwhile, a mathematics professor at the University of Stockholm has warned that thanks to the official hands-off strategy, half of the country’s population could be infected with the virus by the end of April. And at last count, no fewer than 2300 academics, including the head of the Nobel Foundation, have signed a petition calling “for more stringent measures” against the virus.

In neighboring Denmark, which has pursued a lockdown along the line of America’s, the state of affairs in Sweden is causing no small degree of trepidation. “Looking at Sweden is a bit like watching a horror film,” a Danish TV reporter, Lisbeth Davidsen, said the other day. The reaction in next-door Norway has been similar.

By contrast, epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, who used to have Tegnell’s job, thinks the official policy is too stringent. “There’s no reason why people who feel well should stay at home,” he told Foreign Policy, “and there is no evidence that shows closing national borders or restaurants reduces the spread of viruses.”

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, has praised Tegnell, saying that Swedes “know who to thank for their liberty. On Vasagatan [a street in Stockholm], there’s a poster taped to a wall saying ‘All power to Tegnell, state epidemiologist.’” Writing in the Spectator, Swedish free-market economist Fredrik Erixon celebrated his nation’s response to the pandemic, presenting it, like Nelson, as a matter of personal freedom. Even though Swedes have traditionally “felt comfortable with the nanny state giving us orders,” writes Erixon, Sweden has, paradoxically enough, ended up “being the final bastion of liberty.”

Nonsense. Sweden’s approach to this global dilemma has nothing whatsoever to do with liberty. Sweden doesn’t do liberty. Sweden isn’t about the individual.

Paul Connolly, a journalist who lives in Sweden, was closer to the mark when he pointed out the other day that “Sweden is still a very community-led nation” whose citizens “firmly believe that community comes first, not the individual.” Bingo. That’s what this is all about. In the long run, it doesn’t matter to Swedish authorities if any number of Swedish individuals die so long as the community survives.

Söderberg-Nauclér, the virologist at the Karolinska Institute, has admitted as much. “The government thinks they can’t stop [the virus], so they’ve decided to let people die,” she has said. “They don’t want to listen to the scientific data that’s presented to them….We are seeing signs of a higher doubling rate than Italy….All of this is very dangerous.”

If the Swedish people have nonetheless gone along with their government’s distinctive approach, it’s because, as Derek Robertson of the Guardian has noted, they have “high levels of trust in experts and governing officials,” are “inclined to believe what they are told,” and assume “that those doing the telling have their best interests at heart.” Whereas both Erixson and Connolly paint a picture of Sweden today as an oasis of normality, Robertson has another take: “It feels surreal in Sweden just now,” he wrote recently. While he sat at a Malmö café scrolling through pictures of “army trucks transporting the dead in Italy” and other images of the new normal around the world, he was “surrounded by the usual groups of chatty teenagers, mothers with babies and the occasional freelancer.”

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Many of us who’ve been pondering the Islamization of Europe for a long time have been aware almost from the beginning that Sweden, when it comes to this subject, is in a class by itself. We’ve observed with grim fascination its leaders’ apparent eagerness to see their country overrun by adherents of a barbaric ideology who have nothing but contempt for them and their culture and (until recently) the inability of the Swedish people to defend their patrimony and act in the interest of their children. Some of us have described Sweden’s approach to Islam as downright suicidal – as a psychopathology, no less, that’s rooted in a perverse, deep-seated self-loathing that may or may not have something to do with the ignominious role Sweden played in World War II. Well, at this moment, anyway, “suicidal” also seems like precisely the right word to describe Sweden’s way of dealing with to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking of Islamization, I’ve written several pieces over the years about the systematic prioritization of Muslim immigrants over native Swedes when it comes to a wide range of benefits, including housing, schooling, and day care. There have been innumerable stories about, for example, old folks (i.e. lifelong taxpayers) being tossed out of their homes so that some newly arrived Muslim family can move in and live there for free (i.e. at taxpayer expense). No, Sweden’s not alone in putting immigrants – including those who’ve been on the dole since the day they arrived, and even those who are, to use the current term of choice, undocumented – ahead of natural-born Swedes. But no country, I think, has been more aggressive on this front than Sweden. Now a new directive makes it clear that, in a situation where, say, there aren’t enough ventilators to go around, young and robust illegal immigrants can be placed in line ahead of feeble old Swedes.

The official logic here is that “all people are of equal value.” The truth is that Swedish authorities are more comfortable practicing ageism than practicing something that might, God forfend, be interpreted as Islamophobia. And in a welfare state where community matters more than the individual, denying health care to citizens who are assumed to have passed their productive years is a no-brainer.

(So eager are Swedish authorities, apparently, to replace their frail, pale oldsters with vigorous young Muslims that, as Erling Marthinsen noted at resett.no on Saturday, they’re continuing to issue new residency permits – over eight thousand in March alone.)

There’s more on the triage front. Last week the Swedish daily Aftonbladet got hold of an internal government document indicating that sometime this week the hospital beds in Stockholm will be full. What will the powers that be do to address this challenge? The document is a masterpiece of euphemism, but the bottom line is clear enough. Older people infected with COVID-19 won’t be given full-fledged hospital care but, upon presenting themselves at the offices of their primary-care physicians, will be sent back home or to retirement home-type facilities, where they’ll be given palliative care. In other words, they’ll basically be allowed to die. (Which makes one wonder how sincere Tegnell was when he expressed regret last Thursday that Swedish authorities had failed to protect residents of retirement homes from infection.)

On last Thursday’s Swedish evening news, an ICU doctor from the Karolinska Hospital was interviewed about this new throw-grandma-under-the-bus policy. I was struck by what I couldn’t help interpreting as his fatalism. Beginning this week, he said matter-of-factly, patients who formerly would’ve been put in intensive care for weeks will be denied treatment. Would the unlucky patients be winnowed out by age, he was asked? Oh, no, no, no, he said. The main criterion, he explained, will be “biological age.” He was certain, he added, that many parents and grandparents who don’t have many years left anyway will gladly sacrifice their lives for their grandchildren. He and the other two people onscreen discussed this topic as if they were talking about train schedules. Ditto Tegnell, who on the same day was quoted as commenting, anent the sharp rise in coronavirus cases in Sweden, that “the curve is beginning to be rather steep” and that this development was “very unfortunate.” And at a Friday press conference, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven came off as pathetically wishy-wishy, admitting that Sweden would experience a great many coronavirus deaths but having nothing of substance to say about that alarming fact. He showed nothing remotely resembling leadership and had virtually nothing to offer but empty words.

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Never have I seen the contrast between the Scandinavian – and especially Swedish – mentality and the American more dramatically illustrated. While President Trump, at his daily press conferences, exudes a can-do vigor, depicting this crisis as nothing less than a war and expressing his determination to win it, the Swedes – or at least the ones holding the reins of power – seem quick to sigh, shrug quietly, and get down to the business of triage. In New York, my hometown, the Javits Center was swiftly converted to a hospital, and a massive hospital ship now lies moored in the harbor; in Stockholm, they’re preparing to separate the sheep from the goats.

No, no country is handling this crisis perfectly. We may all be in over our heads before too long. In the U.S., too, ICU doctors may soon be turning away people who might well have been saved. But it doesn’t help to wave the white flag the moment the enemy starts shooting.

Last Friday, further details on Sweden’s defeatist-sounding scheme were made public. It emerged that a team led by Lars Sandman, a professor of health ethics at Linköping University (a bit of advice: if you ever run into a self-identified “ethicist” while suffering from a sneezing fit or mild cough, flee the scene as fast as you can), had been tasked with formulating new national guidelines for deciding which coronavirus patients should and shouldn’t be given intensive care. After a week and a half of meetings, Sandman & co. had come up with a way of separating patients into three groups based on their apparent chances of surviving. Like the ICU doctor whom I saw on Swedish TV, Sandman (interesting name, no?) emphasized that his criteria took into question not chronological age but “biological age.”

According to a report published later on Friday, however, several doctors – including Johan Styrud, a director of the Swedish Medical Association – were complaining that denial of treatment to COVID-19 patients was already being practiced, and that, Sandman to the contrary, patients who stood “a good chance of surviving the disease if they received intensive care” were instead being given “only morphine and oxygen.” On Saturday, Swedish state TV revealed the contents of an urgent internal memo indicating that the health-care system had already run out of Propofol, a sedative that often needs to be used on patients connected to ventilators.

In his own aforementioned piece, published on Friday, Fraser Nelson, the Spectator editor, made no reference to any of this. On the contrary, he reassured readers that Tegnell’s “assessment of the virus and its likely trajectory” shows it “peaking with about 250 needing intensive care in Stockholm,” meaning that Sweden’s “hospitals…can cope.” Fake news – and of the most cynical, dangerous kind. Indeed, on Sunday evening, after Sweden’s death tolls so far were revised radically upward, the website document.no reported that it was beginning to be obvious that Tegnell’s strategy had failed – and noted that, in the view of a leading Swedish jurist, Tommy Iseskog, the politicians and others who had approved it might well end up being found criminally liable for their actions.

Now, if I were the suspicious type, I might suggest that Sweden’s coronavirus policy was, from the very beginning, formulated with this endgame in mind: the weeding out of aged and infirm Swedes in order to free up residences, welfare benefits, and Lebensraum generally (pardon my French) for Muslim immigrants, among whom the average age – chronological or biological – is, for obvious reasons, far lower than among native Swedes. Of course, there couldn’t possibility be a hint of truth in that wild surmise.