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Sweden Censors Foreign Academics Critical of No-Mask Strategy

Sweden continues to implement its deadly pandemic response, and has worked to censor foreign academics who are critical of its disastrous strategy. It’s time to debunk the myth of the Swedish “socialist paradise.”

Matteo Iammarrone

March 8, 2021
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Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell speaks in front of a Swedish flag.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, one of the architects of the country’s coronavirus response. AFP/Naina Helen Jama

One year into the pandemic, Sweden still continues its disastrous laissez-faire approach to dealing with Covid-19. The social-democratic-liberal government and its Public Health Agency de facto opted to achieve herd immunity through an experiment in mass social Darwinism, to the detriment of those most vulnerable: the elderly, sick, factory workers, teachers, medical staff, and immigrants. It never closed non-essential activities, and has never required mask-wearing — barely 50 percent of Swedes have followed any mask recommendations at all. Above all, the Public Health Agency, in a country characterized by a social cohesion that is probably unthinkable in any other Western society, has managed, through the state media apparatus, to convince the majority of its citizens of the rightness of its strategy and that the rest of the world is wrong.

After all, the Public Health Agency officially continues to consider the virus as “not airborne.”

Sweden continues to let the virus spread in schools, offices, factories, entertainment venues, and other areas of social life. Despite several infectious waves and the threat of more dangerous variants, there has been no change of course. The data speak for themselves: Nearly 13,000 deaths in Sweden compared to 2,374 in Denmark, 764 in Finland and 632 in Norway. These three countries, unlike Sweden, have adopted measures similar to those of many countries in the rest of the world.

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Two recent events demonstrate that these decisions taken by the group of “experts” helming the Public Health Agency are expected not only to be a source of national pride over Swedish exceptionalism — they should also be accepted as unquestionable, absolute truths. Far from merely advocating for the laissez-faire approach to pandemic management, sectors of the media in particular have heavily admonished those who dare criticize the coronavirus response. The censorship methods cast doubt on the idea of Sweden as a “socialist paradise” and a bastion of freedom of expression. 

The First Sign of Debate Censorship: The Attack on the 22

Last April, a group of 22 Swedish scientists and epidemiologists dared to criticize the country’s coronavirus strategy by issuing a joint statement highlighting the failures of the Public Health Agency and its responses. The scientists were heavily ridiculed and delegitimized by many media. Twitter in particular was a theater of hatred, and Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, one of the 22 experts, was forced to deactivate her account.

The deluge of hatred towards these experts may be explained by the fact that their statement constituted the first voice out of the critical chorus coming from inside the country, and was therefore potentially more destabilizing in terms of trust for the strategy and, more generally, for Swedish institutions and the Public Health Agency. Criticism from abroad, on the other hand, has been significantly more numerous — the vast majority of journalists ready to ask critical questions at official press conferences are foreigners. However, from the Swedish point of view, foreign criticism is perceived as less destabilizing, since a key element of Swedish “exceptionalism” is that Swedes care about foreign criticism less, especially if it comes from outside Scandinavia and even more so if it comes from Southern Europe.

What is at stake here is the character of bourgeois democracy itself. Sweden shows that the development of modern capitalism, with its ever increasing degree of specialization of skills and division of labor, in addition to centralizing capital in a few hands creating economic oligarchies, makes knowledge increasingly specific. This generates “epistemological” oligarchies that increase incommunicability and distance between different sectors of workers, but also between different areas of research, branches of knowledge and, not least, between state and society.

The Mewas Group and “Psychological” Repression of Dissent

The latest event related to the climate of discussion on the Swedish strategy has been that of Mewas, a Facebook group of about 200 members, most of them foreign academics with international contacts. In recent weeks, there has been much talk about the group’s activities, which, according to Swedish Radio, “harm Sweden’s interests abroad.” The Swedish media have repeatedly pointed out that group members are foreigners who discuss in English. Apparently, immigrants criticizing Swedish institutions — using another language, to boot — has added insult to injury.

In another episode on Swedish Radio, speakers debated whether it was acceptable for researchers from non-epidemiological fields to intervene publicly in the debate on the Swedish strategy. The participants in the broadcast discussed the possible introduction of guidelines that would “regulate” the participation of academics in public debates in which they have no demonstrated scientific expertise. In Sweden, researchers are already forbidden from carrying out extra-academic activities that could compromise their relationship with their university. The idea proposed in the radio program is to extend this constraint to public debates, including those that take place on social media. 

Meanwhile, the founder of Mewas, after receiving threatening letters, pressure from the media, and relentless attacks on Twitter, has decided to leave the country. Some Mewas members feel their academic standing has been compromised or even threatened by this affair. Mewas has even been described by some as a “terrorist” group. 

Hanna Linderstål, the expert invited to speak at the abovementioned radio broadcast, is officially a “freelance digital analyst” who works for the government to obtain information about “interference in national interests and virtual threats.” Closer research reveals that Linderstål is one of the leaders of the “Psychological Defense Council,” a government initiative apparently linked to the Ministry of Defense (and, allegedly, to the Secret Service). The official goal of the council is to combat fake news and conspiracy theories. However, in a country such as Sweden, where trust in bourgeois institutions and positivist scientific rationalism approaches religious fanaticism, the umbrella terms of “fake news” and “conspiracy theories” can extend to criticism of the government and the Swedish strategy from other experts, not just to the fantasies of Flat-Earthers. Indeed, on social media, Mewas members were even referred to as “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “conspiracists.” 

There is nothing new in the instrumental use of these accusations: last March, when the pandemic began, the Swedish media was already referring to those who called for more restrictive measures as “populists” or even “right-wing extremists.” It is not uncommon to hear Swedes describe mask mandates as “authoritarian” and countries with strict coronavirus measures as “police states.” The irony and absurdity of this narrative lies in the fact that far-right movements around the world have lauded the Swedish pandemic response. Sweden and its “freedom” have been explicitly praised at U.S. anti-lockdown demonstrations, where protesters hold signs that read “Be Like Sweden.” 

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Despite its shocking death toll, Sweden remains the only country in the world where those who believe that scientifically proven restrictive measures should be introduced, such as the use of masks, are accused of “conspiracy” and “fascism.” In the rest of the world, it is exactly the opposite. It is interesting to note how the chauvinist — even explicitly nationalist — fanaticism that feeds the Swedish strategy paradoxically creates an ad hoc conspiracy theory to absolve itself from accusations of conspiracy. What could be more conspiratorial than successfully convincing almost an entire population that the country’s pandemic response is the only correct one, and that the restrictive measures adopted by all other countries are useless against the virus, have no scientific basis, and are the product of a lack of “democratic culture”? This is the message that has implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) passed through Sweden since the beginning of the pandemic regarding why other countries have acted differently.

Protesters against coronavirus lockdowns in Minnesota carry signs, one says "Be like Sweden."
Right-wing demonstrators in the United States praising the Swedish strategy

The Attempt to Contact “Reporters Without Borders”

A member of Mewas reported this story to the Paris-based non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders,which reacted by contacting its office in Stockholm. The organization was told that Mewas’ accusations against the Swedish media apparatus were unfounded since state support for the media is normal (insofar as it does not affect freedom of information), and, bizarrely, that criticism of the virus management strategy was not be part of Reporters Without Borders’ area of competence

It is not clear why an organization that is responsible for monitoring freedom of the press and information should suspend its supervisory function when the freedom of information on a specific issue is under threat in the context of an emergency (in this case, the debate on pandemic management). The impression is that “Reporters Without Borders’” can’t or doesn’t want to get involved in such a complicated issue — Sweden’s image in the West — presumably due to intricate political implications. Since physical threats to journalists are extremely rare in Sweden, and the brainwashing of an entire population is difficult to measure, world opinion may continue to believe that the Scandinavian country does indeed enjoy great press freedom.

What If It Had Happened Elsewhere?

What would have happened if these events had not taken place in Sweden, the enclave of the reformist fantasies of a capitalism with a human face, but, say, Putin’s Russia or Bolsonaro’s Brazil? What kind of resonance would this story have had if it had happened in a country which, unlike Sweden, is not a close Western ally, and does not have, for historical, political and geopolitical reasons, a positive image in the eyes of the West? Would Reporters Without Borders have limited itself to a phone call to its local office if the object of the Mewas activists’ reporting had been the Polish, Hungarian, or Russian media?

Notably, these countries are mentioned for illustrative purposes, but their Covid management policies are less denialist than Sweden’s. The case of Brazil, however, bears more similarities to Sweden than the Swedes would like to admit. President Bolsonaro, especially at the start of the first wave, expressed similar positions on the coronavirus to those of the Swedish authorities. He first explicitly favored achieving herd immunity, and then later embraced more denialist beliefs and policies. 

For decades, reformist leftists such as Bernie Sanders have been feeding the myth of Sweden as a third way between capitalism and real socialism. Sweden’s cruel and disastrous pandemic response, in addition to its increasingly neoliberal politics, show that we must debunk the myth of the Swedish “socialist paradise.”

First published in Italian on February 25 in La Voce Delle Lotte.

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