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Sweden: “The government has failed to protect the elderly”

Written by on 4 mai 2020

While attention is beginning to turn towards an end to confinement throughout much of Europe, this is a transition Sweden will not have to make. Schools, cafes and restaurants have remained open throughout the coronavirus crisis. The government did not take measures beyond initial recommendations of limiting movement and social distancing. However, the strategy is coming under increasingly intense criticism, because the death rate for the virus is particularly high in Sweden compared to its neighbouring countries.

This raises the question : should more have been done to protect the Swedish population ? To address this today we are speaking with Erik Angner, professor of philosophy and economics in Stockholm university.

Why do you believe that the Swedish government did not put the country into lockdown while almost all other countries in Europe did ?

“One reason is that Sweden does not have a constitutional right for the government to shut down the country like other governments did. So the Swedish government does not have the right or the authority to declare a state of emergency in peacetime and restrain the liberties people would otherwise enjoy.

Why is that? Part of it might have to do with the fact that Sweden has been safe from all sorts of disasters. Sweden has succeeded in staying out of multiple wars, there haven’t been massive pandemics for years. And possibly because of that, Sweden is poorly prepared to handle this sort of outbreak.

Much of it also has to do with the way the administration is organised: the universities and schools are relatively independent entities. The government doesn’t have the power the shut down the schools for example.”

Was there legal enforcement of any anti-coronavirus measures ?

“Instead of forcing people to stay inside or preventing them to moving about, they issued recommendations and relied on people to voluntarily comply. By large, Swedes do. For example, people reduced their traveling by 90%, which means that 9 people out of 10 do what they’re told. One person out of 10 does not. You might have seen pictures online of crowds in bars in the Stockholm city center: it’s important to realise that it is not the majority of the population.”

However, the Swedish government has now come under criticism for not handling the crisis well : the death rate of coronavirus is noticeably higher than its neighbouring countries. Especially in retirement homes, where one third of all deaths have been recorded. How is it that the virus has affected retirement homes so much ?

“One thing worth knowing is that retirement homes are run by the cities and not by the central government. So, to the extent that there is a politician that is guilty, it is local politicians and not the central government.

But many retirement homes have been privatized, many of them have used temporary staff hired by the hour. Some of the temporary staff move from the one retirement home to the other. And it means that whoever gets sick will start moving from the one place to the other bringing the virus with them.

So there is a real possibility that the epidemic in retirement homes has more to do with deregulation and privatization than it has to do with any national policy.”

Could the outbreak also have been caused by a shortage of masks and other protective equipment ?

“There is technically a shortage of personal protective equipment. In the healthcare sector, by and large, people have been able to get the protective equipment that they need. Even though the authorities have signaled that they don’t have any margin of error.

But when it comes to the retirement homes, there is a real shortage of personal protective equipment. Because most of it goes to the health care system.

Moreover, I have the feeling that retirement homes were poorly trained for this. So that the people who work in the retirement homes were not adequately trained to use the equipment. Which means that even when you have it, it doesn’t do the amount of good it is supposed to.

And so there have definitely been poor preparation when it comes to the equipment that was available and the training. One thing that the central government has been doing is to buy personal protective equipment and to distribute it across the country. They also developed various forms of information campaigns.

So there are things the government can do, but it obviously failed to protect the elderly. There are some homes were many people have died, which is of course a very tragic outcome.”

Despite these health concerns no signs so far of the government changing its strategy.

Speaking to us today from the philosophy and economics department at the university of Stockholm, thanks so much for your input Professor Angner !


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