Was the Swede virus approach best? Chief scientist backtracks.

Sweden's chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has shown some contrition over the country’s hotly debated approach to stay open amid virus: Evidence suggests an early lockdown could have saved more lives. The country will now ramp up both tracing and testing. 

Pontus Lundahl/TT File/AP
Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden speaks during a coronavirus news conference in Stockholm, Sweden on May 27, 2020. Mr. Tegnell is known as the architect of Sweden's unique decision to stay open amid the pandemic.

Sweden's chief epidemiologist showed contrition on Wednesday as criticism mounted over the Scandinavian country's hotly debated method of fighting the coronavirus, which has resulted in one of the highest death rates per capita in the world.

Sweden has stood out among European nations and the world for the way it has handled the pandemic, not shutting down the country or the economy like others but relying on citizens' sense of civic duty. Swedish authorities have advised people to practice social distancing, but schools, bars, and restaurants have been kept open the entire time. Only gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned.

Official advice tells anyone not “vulnerable” to stay home only if symptomatic, and to socially distance when out. We’re not actively seeking herd immunity, they say. But equally, we don’t want to suppress the virus by locking down, testing, and tracing.

"I think there is potential for improvement in what we have done in Sweden, quite clearly," Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency told Swedish radio. 

Sweden, a nation of 10.2 million people, has seen 4,468 deaths linked to COVID-19, which is far more than its Nordic neighbors and one of the highest death rates per capita in the world. Denmark has had 580 coronavirus deaths, Finland has seen 320, and Norway has had 237, according to a tally by the Johns Hopkins University.

"If we were to encounter the same disease again, knowing precisely what we know about it today, I think we would settle on doing something in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done," said Mr. Tegnell, considered the architect of the unique Swedish pandemic approach.

Authorities in Sweden, including Mr. Tegnell, have been criticized – and have apologized – for failing to protect the country's elderly and nursing home residents. 

But Mr. Tegnell said on Wednesday it was still unclear what the country should have done differently. He also said other nations are unable to tell exactly what measures affected the outcome of their outbreaks because they threw everything at it in one go.

"Maybe we know that now, when you start easing the measures, we could get some kind of lesson about what else, besides what we did, you could do without a total shutdown," Mr. Tegnell said.

Asked if the country's high death toll has made him reconsider his unique approach to the pandemic, Mr. Tegnell answered "yes, absolutely."

"I'm not walking around thinking that we have a real disaster here in Sweden," Jan Arpi, a sales executive, told The Associated Press. "I think we have it more or less under control, but we have to be even more careful now with the learning we have got from how the virus is spread, especially among the elderly people." 

Sweden's infection rate of 43.24 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants is lower than Spain's (58.06), and Italy's (55.39), but is higher than the reported rates in the United States (32.14) and Brazil (14.29), according to the Johns Hopkins University.

In a first-person account AP journalist Phelan Chatterjee shared his experiences working from home in Sweden during the lockdown and his efforts to understand the nation's approach to the coronavirus:

In Sweden, a vast acceptance of the strategy [to remain open] has swept across the nation. Parties left to right have rallied behind the authorities. Noteworthy dissent has come from 22 scientists, demanding more restrictions and testing, but they have been broadly dismissed as unhelpful and obsessive.

Researcher Gina Gustavsson suggests this stems from the country’s pride in its democracy, openness, and scientific research. To challenge the strategy is to challenge Swedes’ most cherished values. There’s a pride in staying open and trusting the experts.

Ina Hallström argues this faith has meant people widely believe that the fast rising levels of death we’re witnessing are inevitable – when that might not necessarily be the case.

These deaths have exposed cracks in the Swedish nation, leaving some in disproportionately affected groups wondering how much their lives really matter.

Swedish-Somalis, seven times overrepresented in April’s case numbers, have slammed the Christian Democrats’ leader for linking this to “illiteracy.” Instead, they point to socioeconomic factors; an inability to work remotely and overcrowded households.

Last week, the country's former state epidemiologist, Annika Linde, said that in retrospect she believes an early lockdown could have saved lives while political pressure has forced the government to bring forward an investigation into the handling of the crisis.

The moves recommended by Mr. Tegnell have made Sweden a bit of a local pariah and didn't spare the Swedish economy. More than 76,000 people have been made redundant since the outbreak began and unemployment, which now stands at 7.9%, is expected to climb higher.

Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson has said Sweden's economy, which relies heavily on exports, will shrink 7% in 2020 and the Scandinavian country was headed for "a very deep economic crisis."

A party close to government calls for change. Health Minister Lena Hallengren indicates testing and tracing may be ramped up.

Last week, neighboring Norway and Denmark said they were dropping mutual border controls but would keep Sweden out of a Nordic "travel bubble."

Danes said they will reopen the border next month to residents of neighboring Germany, as well as to Norway and Iceland, as it accelerates the easing of its coronavirus lockdown. However, Denmark, which has a bridge that goes directly to Sweden, has postponed a decision on whether to reopen to Swedish visitors until after the summer.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark and Phelan Chatterjee in Stockholm, Sweden contributed to this report.

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