Unlike its Nordic neighbors and many other countries, Sweden has taken a laissez-faire approach to the coronavirus. It did not implement lockdowns or close schools and workplaces, and it mandates masks only on public transit, a rule enacted just last month. Instead, the Swedish government asked people to use common sense, take personal responsibility, and avoid large gatherings. The goal was herd immunity, as shown in internal communications among Swedish officials, though the government has avoided explicitly referring to it as such.
Behind this strategy was, predictably, the desire to protect capitalists’ profits. An analyst at the Swedish Public Health Agency said it would be impossible to close things long term because the economy would collapse. From the start, Sweden’s strategy made it a model for the Right and conservative governments worldwide, which are similarly keen to put profits before people. In the United States, Republicans have lauded the strategy, such as Senator Rand Paul during a Senate hearing. “Be Like Sweden” even appeared on placards at anti-shutdown protests last year. U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson was likewise influenced by the herd immunity strategy in shaping his country’s disastrous response to the pandemic, and even met with Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.
But a second wave of the virus has forced the Swedish government to partly abandon its hands-off strategy. Sweden has surpassed 500,000 cases since the start of the pandemic, and the country recently experienced its deadliest days. Intensive care units are at 99 percent capacity in some regions. The parliament passed a law last week to allow authorities to close down businesses, public transit, and other spaces if infections continue unabated.
The number of deaths and the number of infected, especially when compared to other Scandinavian countries, seems a damning indictment of the Swedish government’s strategy. But far from taking responsibility for their atrocious handling of the pandemic and their eschewing of successful public health recommendations implemented in other countries, Swedish authorities have found a more convenient scapegoat: immigrants.
Ignoring the Science
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Social Democratic government, headed by Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén, has entrusted the Swedish Public Health Agency with “full powers” in Covid-19 matters. Despite its consistently wrong predictions, and the fact that infections and deaths are five or six times higher than in other Scandinavian countries, Swedes’ confidence in this institution is a staggering 80–85 percent. Tegnell — whose portrait hangs in some the country’s public canteens — is the face of the Public Health Agency and of the “Swedish way” to manage the pandemic.
Tegnell, the group of experts that comprise the Public Health Agency, the government, and, apparently, 80 percent of Swedes believe that masks are unnecessary or even harmful. In support of this position, they cite a Danish study that reveals only that masks do not prevent the entry of the virus from the external environment, but stop the virus from escaping through the oral cavity. This study does not question masks’ usefulness, but rather emphasizes that it is effective only if worn by everyone. Yet despite its obvious conclusions, this study has been used to support Sweden’s laissez-faire strategy. It is often quoted by politicians, journalists, and social media users to defend the Swedish government and to insinuate that mask mandates, introduced in most other countries, have no scientific basis, but are rather a “populist” measure foolishly fed to the people by rulers in order to create a false sense of security.
In the meantime, many businesses and institutions, including elementary schools, remain open. Initially the Public Health Agency had declared that all children, including those whose parents tested positive for Covid-19, would have to go to school. After some perplexity and opposition expressed by the teachers’ union, the “experts” of the Swedish strategy have changed their minds at least on this point, declaring that, as a precaution, these children should stay at home.
Tegnell has been forced to answer uncomfortable questions from foreign journalists, who tend to be more critical of his strategy than native journalists. (The Swedish media generally seek to have peaceful relations with the government, much more so than in any other European capitalist country.)
When Tegnell responds to foreign journalists, he usually babbles. When asked by a reporter a few weeks ago why the number of deaths in Sweden was six times higher than in Norway, Tegnell resorted to tautology: “Our number of deaths was high in the spring because it was high, but now it is not so high, even though it is high.” Even taking into account the difficulties in comparing the statistics of different countries, it makes sense to compare Sweden with the rest of Scandinavia, because they Sweden also have a low population density, as well as a similar climate and some cultural traits, such as the “social distancing” already inscribed in the ways of the northern Europeans. For these reasons, comparisons with Norway or Denmark are a major source of embarrassment for the Swedish health authority.
A new idea, however, is gaining momentum: if on the one hand there is a tendency to deny that the health crisis in Sweden is more serious than in other countries, there is at the same time an attempt to blame factors beyond the strategy itself, such as migrants.
In November alone there were 985 Covid deaths in Sweden (97 per million inhabitants), compared to 128 in Denmark (22 per million inhabitants), 69 in Norway (13 per million inhabitants), and 49 in Finland (10 per million inhabitants). In a TV interview, Tegnell was again asked by a journalist, this time from Sweden, why there was a difference in the number of deaths between these countries. His answer was that in Sweden, as in other European countries with high death rates, there are “immigrant groups that have played an important role in spreading the infection.”
Sociology professor Simone Scarpa notes that in the past few weeks, the same explanation had already been proposed by some TV commentators, even those who are “on the left” (e.g., Agnes Wold, Jonas Ludvigsson, and Sven Román).
Tegnell and these commentators fail to mention that many immigrants in Sweden have low-skill, low-wage jobs that don’t allow them to work from home. They have to work in close contact with other people and often live in crowded apartments, in suburbs from which they are forced to take public transportation, in cities where no one wears masks. “Having worked with many of them,” says Scarpa, “I am not surprised by the silence of the many scholars who deal with immigration and ethnic relations in Swedish universities. … They will probably continue as if nothing happened with their studies on how bad and ugly the EU is.”
On December 10, the Swedish newspaper Expressen criticized the hypothesis — expressed among others by Tegnell — that Sweden’s higher number of Covid deaths could be attributed to the higher percentage of immigrants in the country. In fact, notes the Expressen reporter, the number of deaths was much higher in Sweden’s northern region of Norrland than in the other Nordic countries. Norrland has roughly the same population density and percentage of non-European immigrants as Denmark, Finland, and Norway, but it had four to five times the number of deaths.
The Expressen reporter then asked for comment on the article during a press conference, which was not chaired by Tegnell but by his deputy, Karin Tegmark Wisell. According to her, Tegnell did not propose a mono-causal explanation, since many factors were in play simultaneously, including demographic ones. As for the theory that immigrant groups have spread the infection, she defended her colleague by specifying that
it is not so much the current percentage of immigrants in Sweden that matters as the journeys these immigrants have made to their countries of origin and their interactions with family members and acquaintances in the countries of origin. In fact, we know that the virus was already present in other countries before reaching Sweden. In addition, the demographics of Norrland are very heterogeneous; there are areas with high numbers of deaths and areas with low numbers of deaths. It is necessary to examine the reason for these differences between the different areas of Norrland. There are certainly many factors involved, but one of the factors may have been the high number of trips abroad by immigrants, although this is a hypothesis that still needs to be tested by comparison with other countries.
Although Tegnell acknowledged that he misspoke, Tegmark Wisell reiterated that immigrants’ trips abroad played an important role, although one must also keep in mind the conditions under which immigrants live in Sweden, which may have played an important role in spreading the contagion, such as overcrowding. “In practice, the Swedish health authorities’ analyses are nothing more than a more elaborate version” of the xenophobic beliefs put forward by former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.
Racist, Chauvinist, and Nationalist Tendencies
During the pandemic, Sweden’s crisis-ridden social democracy has placed its full trust in a group of pseudoscientists whose social experiment — pre-vaccine herd immunity — is paid for primarily by the working class, migrants, and precarious workers. The beneficiaries, without a doubt, have been the capitalists. It has also revealed itself — not only through this group of pseudoscientists but also through its journalists, its press, and its political exponents — to externalize and spread the most boorish racist and chauvinist arguments.
These racist, chauvinist, and nationalist tendencies are not at all foreign either to today’s social democracy or to Sweden’s history. After all, in 1922, Sweden became the first country in the world to found a state institute for the biology of race. Anyone familiar with the country and history will feel a strong sense of déjà vu in reading this reporting.
From this emerges a commitment that we have as Marxists: we cannot obscure the truth about Sweden, Swedish politics, and Swedish society, all of which have for too many years been wrongly “mythologized” by much of the reformist Left. This probably owes to an ideological confusion that still reigns today regarding the definition and the relationship between the concepts of freedom and emancipation, but also more banally the idea of what socialism is.
What the Swedish model has to teach the working class is that social democracy cannot represent a desirable future. It has very little to do with the solidarity and equality of a classless society and much more with a “postmodern” individualism with red-brown tints of statism, nationalism, and chauvinism.
Adapted and expanded from an article first published in Italian on January 12 in La Voce Delle Lotte.
Translation: Otto Fors