Incredible decisions that drove Sweden’s virus numbers up
When most of Europe was in government-enforced lockdown, Sweden did things differently.
None of the mandatory lockdowns, police patrolling the streets, or fines for being out of the house were to be found in the Scandinavian country, which instead adopted a controversial "herd immunity" approach to battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday night the ABC's Foreign Correspondent looked at the country's controversial COVID strategy, and the man behind it, Anders Tegnell, who has been elevated to rock star status in the country by some.
The country's unique strategy to deal with the deadly coronavirus without tanking the economy was to keep schools, cafes, restaurants and shops open, while encouraging people to voluntarily distance themselves and work from home.
The idea was that the country would achieve "herd immunity" - a level of the disease where most of the population has been infected, and subsequently developed immunity, which would in turn stop the virus from spreading.
The man behind this strategy is Sweden's chief epidemiologist, Dr Anders Tegnell, the creator and driver of the national COVID-19 strategy.
In Sweden, he's something of a celebrity. One young man even got a tattoo of his face on his arm. Appearing on the program, Stockholm tattoo artist Zashay Tastas likened him to a mother or father, saying he "has a big-d**k calmness over him", adding that he's "very competent and not braggy about it".
Dr Tegnell says his strategy has succeeded, in the sense that he has kept the country running and its economy afloat.
"We managed to keep society fairly open and our schools open, at least while at the same time delivering good health services to everybody who needs that," he said.
But the country's virus statistics tell a different story. The virus has already killed more than 5300 people, giving Sweden one of the world's highest per capita mortality rates.
To compare those figures with other Scandinavian countries, Denmark has recorded 605 deaths, Finland has recorded 328 deaths, and Norway 249.
Dr Tegnell concedes that Sweden is a global outlier. Asked whether he feels the country has become a "global punching bag", he said: "Sometimes I feel like a personal punchbag, but that's OK. I can live with that."
But he insists his strategy is the best one. Asked whether it would have been wiser to try and immediately stop the disease, he responded: "We basically still think that this is the right strategy for Sweden that we are doing. This is a bit like having an ocean liner and trying to steer with a lag of three or four weeks. I think we are too early to say both Sweden was right or anybody else was right."
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
Dr Tegnell was banking on at least 40 per cent of the Swedish population becoming immune to COVID-19.
Back in May, he told The Financial Times: "In the autumn there will be a second wave.
"Sweden will have a high level of immunity and the number of cases will probably be quite low. But Finland will have a very low level of immunity. Will Finland have to go into a complete lockdown again?"
But a study published earlier this month found the number of Swedes who have formed antibodies to the virus is smaller than expected, dashing hopes that herd immunity could be achieved.
The study, carried out by the country's Public Health Agency, found that just 6.1 per cent of the country's population had developed coronavirus antibodies by late May. This figure falls far short of Dr Tegnell's prediction.
Experts have said achieving herd immunity would require at least 60 per cent of the population to become immune to the virus.
'NO SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND'
Stefan Hanson, an infectious disease expert, was among a group of 22 leading health experts who called for Sweden to adopt a much tougher response to the pandemic.
"The problem is that I don't see any science - there is no scientific background to this strategy," he said on the ABC.
"I woke up in the night because I was thinking, 'This is terrible, people are dying and we are letting the infection spread.'
"From the very start they didn't believe it was going to become an epidemic in Sweden so they didn't take any measures to be prepared for an epidemic. The attitude is taking things too lightly and not to cause panic."
He and a small team set up a pop-up clinic to test for the virus. Swedish authorities subsequently ramped up a national COVID-19 testing campaign, but he said it's too little, too late.
"Herd immunity is very far … and so many dead. The government is doing nothing, just standing there and doing nothing."
But as alarming as the findings are, Dr Tegnell has now said the country does not need to radically alter its policy.
"The strategy has never been to achieve a certain level of immunity," he said. "Our strategy has always been to keep the level of spread on a level that is so low that it does not affect society or healthcare in any catastrophic way and that has been achieved."
Sweden's GDP is predicted to fall by 7 per cent - less than the United Kingdom or Italy, but not particularly better than its Nordic neighbours who implemented tougher restrictions.
Originally published as 'Punchbag' behind Sweden's virus furore