As states like Maine begin to reopen 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 non-essential travel is restricted. Visiting retirement homes is forbidden, and most people in high-risk groups are on near full-time isolation. Yet Sweden stands out in keeping grade schools, bars, restaurants, gyms and shops open and allowing people to gather in small groups. In essence, this is in the same vein as what Maine is transitioning toward. However, Mainers and other Americans should be cautious about 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’s also helps with distancing. Yet aside from these facts, Sweden has public policies that allow for such a liberal approach relative to other places.

• 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. Thus, officials know that if people have COVID-19 symptoms, they won’t intentionally avoid seeking care and unnecessarily risk spreading the virus because of fears of going bankrupt with outrageous medical bills.

• Swedes also have the legal right to paid sick leave, so 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.

• Sweden has robust furlough policies – so instead of laying off workers, affected businesses can get government to subsidize up to 90 percent of a worker’s salary. People can then remain on the payroll during the crisis, and businesses don’t have to retrain new employees post-crisis.

• Sweden has a 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, not politicians, address the nation daily. 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. As of May 8, Sweden had a relatively high number of deaths – nearly 3,000, or 29.85 per 100,000 residents – more than three times the per capita death rate of neighboring Denmark, and over seven times the rate of Norway. Older residents have been hit hardest (96.5 percent of those who died were at least 60 years of age), and Sweden had several large, deadly cases of nursing home infections. (Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that the Swedish government plans to spend about 2.2 billion kronor, or $220 million, on increasing nursing home staffing in order to protect older citizens.) There are undoubtedly more cases than the roughly 24,000 reported – just as in the U.S., testing is still quite scarce in Sweden.

On the other hand, the World Health Organization recently named Sweden “in many ways … a future model” in response to COVID-19, and citizens here are largely supportive. Confidence in the prime minister has more than doubled since the crisis. Thus far, there’s no evidence that deaths have been caused from grade schools or child care facilities staying open. Unemployment here is not expected to go above 12 percent as a result of pandemic-related layoffs.

Overall, time will tell the effectiveness of Sweden’s response. In the meantime, places like Maine should be cautious about emulating Sweden’s response unless they are prepared to also put in place its health care and labor policies.


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