Swedish model on crisis response will be tested over next few weeks
Sweden has been criticized by experts around the world for its seemingly relaxed response to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of imposing total quarantine on its citizens and shutting down businesses and institutions, Swedish leaders have chosen a more selective approach to address the new risks to human health and societal dislocation. This has resulted in a higher death rate among confirmed cases than in the United States yet a functioning economy that has still been able to operate close to normal capacity. This balance between short term and long term risks is not just one choice for the Swedes but rather an approach that once was deeply ingrained in the strategic culture of the country that is being tried again.
During the Cold War, Sweden had adopted a position of formal neutrality to navigate its relationships with the Soviet Union and the United States. But at the same time, Sweden had universal conscription for service in its armed forces, significant military defense, a home guard made up of tens of thousands, and stored supplies and bunkers that made an invasion by the Soviet Union difficult and time consuming. Like Finland, Sweden had accepted that an invasion would produce casualties but that its resistant and resilient approach by its military and citizens would then either deter Moscow because of the costs involved in occupying Sweden or, at least, buy the country time until other democracies could come to its defense. The goal was not to outright repel the invaders but to slow their advance while still maintaining the semblance of a functioning independent nation.
The end of the Cold War relegated these plans to the back burner, but the Russian invasion of Georgia and Ukraine pushed the Swedish political and military leaders to revive the old doctrine of resiliency in preparation for a possible, even though unlikely, violation of Swedish borders. The Swedish Defense Commission, the parliamentary planning body, noted in a report last year that the country needed to be resilient and prepared enough to last three months in the face of an attack and that the actions of citizens, both in and out of the military, would determine the success of the effort to buy time. Indeed, the emphasis on individual responsibility as the top means for preserving the collective good has been a consistent theme.
An armed invasion is, of course, very different from a pandemic. However, Sweden has used much of the same language and outlook in addressing the coronavirus. Universities are closed, the opening of the professional soccer season is postponed, and the elderly have been urged to remain home. Unlike many other European countries, however, factories are still working, restaurants and bars are open with some limitations, and primary and secondary schools are still holding classes. In announcing the official government policy, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven declared, “No one is alone in this crisis, but each person carries a heavy responsibility.”
Why take this approach and not the one followed by most of the European Union? There are peculiarities to the level of exposure and the distribution of population in every country but, based on the words of Lofven, keeping a functioning economy was at least one consideration. He emphasized the difficulties of regaining financial stability following a total shutdown of all but the essential services. With such an advanced social welfare program in Sweden, most displaced workers would instantly receive state support, but the fears were that companies would become permanently damaged and that the country would lose far too many jobs over the next decade.
Anders Tegnell, the top epidemiologist in Sweden, has also spoken about the public health costs of closing schools to children and to the ability of their parents to continue to work and earn a living. Tegnell believes that the current government policy could stay in place for some years without significant harm to businesses or to the general economy of the country. But perhaps a more important consideration would be the risks that every country will face when officials decide to reopen their shuttered societies.
The number of infectious individuals who will suddenly enter the public space may set off a significant second wave of cases and deaths. As the United States is experiencing, the path to reopening an economy after a lockdown is not obvious. Practical Swedes have forgone that choice by adopting a less onerous policy of social distancing but greater personal responsibility. While this softer approach to the crisis receives criticism from experts in Sweden and abroad, the majority of Swedes support it.
For a country often mocked as the ultimate nanny state, the emphasis on the civic duty of individuals is striking yet is consonant with the renewed planning of how a small nation can confront a serious enemy and survive. The next few weeks will tell us whether this approach works and, in turn, whether the modern strategic culture of Sweden has regained its place.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. Craig Kennedy served as former president of the German Marshall Fund.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.