Sweden has persisted with the strategy of coronavirus mitigation that the UK government eventually abandoned in March. The policy is widely supported by the public, even though the Swedish Covid-19 mortality rate is among the 10 highest in the world, at 240 per million population and steadily rising, and many of the nursing homes in Stockholm are now affected.
The typical explanation for this continued public support is that Swedes are trusting and unflappable. The country’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, the public face of the Swedish response to the pandemic, is after all a dry scientist-turned-bureaucrat, not some populist politician trying to whip up nationalist go-it-alone emotion.
But beneath the surface, Sweden is anything but calm. The public debate is inflamed with a sense of wounded national pride. As a believer in the kind of liberal nationalism that encourages self-critical national attachment, this pains me. But as a scholar of nationalism, I recognise the pattern. This is what Isaiah Berlin called the nationalism of “the bent twig”, which lashes out against anyone who steps on it.
It began with a self-conceit that seemed more comical than harmful. Why, one columnist asked, could we not just “let Sweden be Sweden”? Others suggested we brand ourselves “smart Sweden” or “kind Sweden”, the country immune to the hysteria of southern Europe.
The next step was the ridicule and delegitimisation of opponents. A group of 22 scientists wrote a joint opinion column arguing for a drastic change of strategy. But within a few hours no one was paying attention to the substance of their arguments. Instead the debate came to revolve entirely around the fact that they used Covid-19 death numbers that made Sweden look worse than the more cautious estimates of the public health agency. This was certainly clumsy, but did not undermine their main conclusion. Nor does the fact that Sweden does indeed now have close to six times more deaths per capita than neighbouring Norway or Finland.
Then came contempt for emotions, mixed with misogyny. Lena Einhorn, one of the 22 critics, was interviewed via videolink from her home. She broached research reports and numbers, but influential columnists focused on making fun of her hair or curtains. Her “hysterical” voice when describing the suffering of Covid-19 patients was also widely mocked. The detached response to her by chief epidemiologist Tegnell was hailed as evidence of his credibility. It is true that he speaks clinically about death in terms of statistical curves. But it is equally true that he did not offer much rebuttal of the research reports she quoted.
From this trope of Sweden being alone in doing it right, we seem now to have shifted to denying that Sweden is doing anything exceptional at all. An opinion piece by a political scientist suggested that the Guardian had “blacklisted” Sweden, and that its reporting had described Sweden as “free from restrictions”. “Who would have thought Trump’s fake news would one day turn out to be somewhat real?” he concluded.
But these claims are themselves untrue. The Guardian among others rightly reported the comparatively mild restrictions in Sweden. Nor was it “fake news” when Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Swedish doctors could soon be denying respirators to patients over the age of 80, and even those as young as 60 with underlying health conditions. In fact, this is now taking place.
The public veneration for Tegnell has gone far beyond trust. He has become an icon, his face appearing on tattoos and baby garments. Writers otherwise known to cringe at any sign of nationalism describe him as the incarnation of Sweden’s soul. He should be named Swede of the year, says the former minister of public health. Serious newspapers run hagiographic stories on Tegnell and the general director of the public health agency, Johan Carlson. Pictures of their head offices flooded with flowers sent by private citizens are included.
Some failures of the Swedish model have been acknowledged. But they are often linked to the lack of “compliance” of immigrants. Former chief epidemiologist Johan Giesecke explains the failure to protect the elderly in nursing homes with reference to “asylum seekers” and “refugees” on the staff, who “may not always be understanding the information”. This has met with silence, if not approval. It may already have been picked up by the Sweden Democrats, Sweden’s anti-immigration party, who now claim the health of elderly people has been put at risk for the sake of integrating uneducated immigrants.
Defenders of the government’s strategy keep repeating that it is too early to evaluate it. But carrying that argument through to its logical conclusion suggests that veneration should also be postponed until the pandemic has passed. Any successful strategy should be transparent and welcome public scrutiny. My fear is that in our vehement defence of the Swedish approach, we have released forces we cannot control. As is clear for anyone who has followed Brexit, a nationalism unable to handle criticism can easily tear a society apart.
Gina Gustavsson is an associate professor at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, and an associate member of Nuffield College, University of Oxford. With David Miller she is the co-editor of Liberal Nationalism and Its Critics: Normative and Empirical Questions