Sweden – much too Lagom in corona times?


Kungsträdgården park in the center of Stockholm on April 4. Foto: David Isaksson

Why has the Swedish government chosen a different strategy in which the ’stay at home’ is not applied? Is the attitude towards protective measures too lax in Sweden? And what does that strange word Lagom actually means?

Bolivian journalist and writer Carlos Decker-Molina, has been living in Sweden for many years. In this reflection, he shares his view on Sweden in times of coronavirus. The text has been translated from Spanish.

The challenge of all the countries that suffer the invisible attack of the COVID-19 is to apply a kind of social Darwinism to save what is possible of the productive economy, or to take care of the entire population with measures very close to those issued by dictatorships, such as China, but then run the risk of destroying its productive apparatus and, consequently, the economy.

The big problem is that not all dictatorships are rich like China. There are poor ones like Venezuela, or worse still like Turkmenistan, which has decided to ban the word Coronavirus or COVID-19 as a way to pretend that the reality does not exist: ”if I don’t name you, you don’t exist”.

I write these lines from Sweden, a small country (447,430 km2) and with few inhabitants (10,230,185) highly industrialized, quite healthy (the average life is 83 years). In Sweden, you read a lot, with Czech and Russia Swedes share the first place of the European countries that read the most. But Sweden is also “social security sick”. I say sick, because it insures its population from birth to death, all financed through progressive taxes.

This form of administration has been considered a model that, however, was modified by the “marketers” who ruled eight consecutive years in the present century. Despite their neoliberal modifications, they were unable to destroy the entire social security apparatus because the Swedes generally do not want to lose it, although they do modify it according to the circumstances.

There are private administrators, but the capital is from the state (taxes). Today € 20 is paid per consultation, but when it reaches € 100 it is free and this is valid both for diagnosing appendicitis and for a heart transplant. Private social insurance programs exist, but even the royals do not have it, because public service is of the highest quality. As an example, the birth of Princess Victoria was at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, which is a public hospital.

The Swedish model

Years ago I participated as a journalist in a seminar on the Swedish Model on the premises of CEPAL in Santiago de Chile. This was when Pinochet still governed the country. The Chileans were interested in adopting the Swedish model to the Chilean reality, something that did not happen because there cannot be copies of successful social models, for that you need historical background, psychosocial relations and even a certain religious heritage. In Sweden, churches are closed down for lack of parishioners. It is, without a doubt, the most secularized country on the globe, with a high degree of atheism and agnosticism, although it is still culturally Lutheran. The Lutheran is neither arrogant nor ostentatious, he (or she) is hard-working, because the citizen has Luther’s message at his core: ”Heaven is earned through work.”

The role of the state

We must go back to 1,600’s when the foundations of the current Swedish state were built. Axel Oxenstierna, who became the de facto regent of the royal house, told his son that ignorance should be replaced by knowledge. Oxenstierna is the author of the creation of ministries without executive power but surrounded by expert institutions. An example: The Ministry of Transport has institutions that design, test and execute the main lines of what transport should be. The minister deals with taking initiatives to parliament and then returns with the laws that the expert institutions execute. Exactly the same goes for the health sector. There is a Swedish word that can be translated as: Ministries without a rudder, the rudder is managed by those who know, politicians must explain and convince or vice versa, they must propose to the experts the changes that come from below.

What does the word Lagom mean?

The word Lagom is another guideline of the model. It could be translated as “Nothing to the extremes, to the middle is correct”, and it is not a literal but a conceptual translation. Swedish Lagom is applied even in soccer. There is no Zlatan without the other 10, tomorrow the star disappears, but the team is still alive.

The confidence of the citizens in their institutions is the highest in the world. If any of them would advise their population to go naked because the experts (science) consider it to be good for health, there would be protests and complaints until they are shown the effects of the tests, then they would go to work naked. Here the press plays a role. And in Sweden, it is very free of ties, both political and business. In general, it is endowed with great credibility, because it is the one that asks, debates and investigates what experts and men of science do.

The Swedish approach to COVID-19

The international press has condemned the Swedish attitude towards the pandemic for its laxity. The BBC recently wrote that food shops in Sweden continue to receive customers. Most are closed on their own and the open ones subtract the social distance, masses for two to two meters away from one table from the other. The buses continue to circulate, taking those who work in health, with the elderly and in other related services, but the vehicles are not full, they are fully spaced and to take everyone to work or home they have multiplied trips, thus avoiding the crowds. To protect the driver, travellers enter through the middle door.

Personally, I have been confined with my wife in my apartment for more than two weeks, totally voluntary, in compliance with a call from the Government and the experts, who said: “Those over 70 years of age must stay home and avoid crowds. If they go out to do their shopping in compliance with the rules of distance and if possible in the early hours when there are no crowds. Then the supermarkets decided to open at 7:00 for the elderly. And, it is not that the Government has decreed or legislated, it is the product of citizen responsibility.

The Prime Minister stood in front of the screens and spoke for six minutes, calling for civic responsibility. He said: ”We must all do it together or we will fail, it is my responsibility as a leader, but also yours as citizens.”

The Health Minister said: “The Swedish Government’s strategy is to inhibit the spread of viruses, protect vulnerable groups and not overload the Health system, but at the same time the Government wants to reduce the economic consequences and protect our industries with different stimulus packages from the ministry of finance ”.

Sweden has an extraordinary network of scientific contacts, in fact, they participate in various international tasks in search of a vaccine, but, when comparing what a Korean expert and a Swedish expert say, they give more credibility to the latter because being Expert is not only to know the result of the test tubes but to know the body where they are going to inoculate.

Sweden was never been a savage capitalist country, nor a Russian-style socialist one. Sweden is capitalist Lagom and socialist lagom, with great respect for human rights and individual liberties, but I could not close my eyes to the advancement of digitalization and cybernetics of which they are main actors.

The digitization minister said that to continue the fight against COVID-19, they will have the information from the BIG-data, but depersonalized, not like in China, which has it incorporated as political control.

Finally, the data for April 6 is as follows:

Cases with COVID-19 – 7,206

People in intensive care 59

Dead 477

There is a growth in the number of infected people that public health experts expected, but in the most recent press conference, they said that possibly in a week the highest peak will be reached because of what they launched a couple of prohibitions: Do not go visiting elderly centres, where some infected have appeared. Avoid crowds and keep the distance of one to two meters. In these days, the hospital and health personnel will be tested because there have been some cases of contagion.

Meanwhile, I follow the example of the Swedes. My civic responsibility is not only with myself and my family, but with the whole society, it imposes on me to obey prohibitions such as staying at home from where I write these lines, wishing the best to my Bolivian compatriots and all the rest of you who do not have the means of the country from where I write, but, with willpower and discipline you can beat the COVID-19.

Good Luck!

Carlos Decker-Molina

The text was initially published in Spanish in the newspaper El Deber in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

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