The rockstar epidemiologist is leading Sweden through a great Covid experiment. Six months in, is it paying off?by Richard Orange / October 5, 2020 / Leave a comment
If you look back at what Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said in March, it’s interesting to see how much he got right. Lockdowns, he said, could only be kept in place “for a very limited amount of time before people get tired,” so should be reserved for when you really need them. Closing schools, he warned, would damage not just children but the functioning of society, by keeping parents at home. The pandemic was “a marathon not a sprint,” as it would be at least a year before vaccines became available. It was better to impose national restrictions light enough to keep in place for long periods—measures that were “sustainable.”
When I last wrote a letter from Sweden at the end of April, it was an open question whether the country had been right to eschew hard lockdown. By June, however, it looked like Tegnell had lost the argument. Lockdowns had dramatically reduced infection in Europe, while cases in Sweden had yet to reach their peak. The death rate was creeping towards that of Italy, and opposition politicians were finally turning on Tegnell’s agency, with the leader of the populist Sweden Democrats calling for his resignation.
Today, though, the story looks far from clear cut. In July, Sweden’s infection rate began to drop, sinking at the start of this month below that of its Nordic neighbours.
While Denmark had opened amusement parks and even let crowds back for football games, Sweden, sticking to Tegnell’s light-but-steady strategy, had kept its 50-person limit in place. Now that the UK and other European countries are wrestling to bring a resurgence under control without reimposing strict lockdowns, Tegnell is regaining his status as a sort of rock star, finding himself, to his evident discomfort, praised by the libertarian right. He is doing non-stop international TV interviews. He has even been in to brief Boris Johnson. Sweden’s newspapers, meanwhile, have begun to gloat, particularly over rising cases in Denmark, which raised hackles in June by refusing to open borders to its harder-hit neighbour (prompting the New York Times to dub Sweden “a pariah state”).
When the Sun in September described Tegnell as a “hero,” the Swedish Expressen tabloid gushed that the strategy…