Notes on Swedish exceptionalism

Author: Thomas Hylland Eriksen

27. April 2020

It seems counterintuitive that the country that gave the world the three-point safety belt and pioneered the use of bicycle helmets should adopt a policy on the Coronavirus which to outsiders could seem frivolous, even irresponsible. Yet, the Swedish government has gone its own way, pursuing a strategy which allows citizens a great deal of personal freedom and responsibility for their own actions, founded in a belief, abandoned in other countries, in herd immunity. How could this happen?

April 2020: Norwegians have experienced a lockdown similar to that implemented in many if not most other countries, with quarantines for the vulnerable, isolation for the infected and restricted mobility for all, the closure of all educational institutions, pubs and restaurants, and the cancellation or digitalisation of every public event, from the sermon to the football match. The Norwegian measures were somewhat less severe than in France or Spain, but one policy had a particularly strong emotional impact on the population, namely the cabin ban. Half the Norwegian population has easy access to a cabin or second home, and not least to the urban middle class, the trek into the mountains at Easter, where snow is still thick on the ground although spring would have appeared in the lowlands, is comparable to a sacred pilgrimage. This was not to be this year, as the authorities decided that Norwegians would not be allowed to spend the night outside of their council area.

On the whole, Norwegians seem to have accepted this draconian measure as a bitter necessity, and in the middle-class areas of western Oslo and beyond, usually quiet and empty at Easter, residents were gardening and going for walks rather than skiing in the remote wilderness. Yet some looked longingly across the border, where skiing resorts remained open, people were free to use their holiday homes, and – lo and behold – were enjoying the first outdoor pints of the year in the warming sun. Sweden was different not only from Norway, but from practically every other country after the UK abandoned its brief fling with the herd immunity strategy. At the time of writing in late April, Sweden has higher infection numbers per million and higher mortality rates than the other countries of Northern Europe, and in the neighbouring countries, the media consistently denounce the Swedish strategy as a failure.

It is too early to tell whether the models proposed by Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and followed by the Swedish government are realistic or fundamentally flawed. Since we are all in uncharted territory, it would be foolish to pass verdict at this stage. It is nevertheless necessary to ask why it is that the Swedes have decided to go their own way in the midst of this global crisis.

One explanation, suggested only half in jest by an historian, is that given the fact that Sweden has a history of eugenics lasting until well after the Second World War, perhaps the present policy, which in practice weeds out vulnerable persons - the old and weak - can be seen as an extension of this ideology, which was deemed respectable not only on the political right, but also among social democrats. Considering the recent political past of Sweden, this is a rather far-fetched notion which is difficult to take seriously.

Another interpretation, which has more credibility, points to the position of scientific rationality in Swedish society and the considerable trust in science. Thus, in so far as Swedish epidemiologists argue that herd immunity is the superior strategy, most Swedes are likely to trust them. Tegnell has repeatedly claimed that their analysis has a stronger scientific basis than the stricter and sometimes authoritarian measures imposed by other governments, including those of the neighbouring countries.

To this it must be added that Sweden is in an unusual position in that it has established the office of the State Epidemiologist, whose power exceeds that of medical advisors in other European countries, and the government is inclined to follow his lead. It should also be added that there are many dissenting voices in Sweden, and many epidemiologists disagree with Tegnell's view. Their objections have increased in volume and visibility throughout April as Swedish mortality numbers have continued to increase, while Norway, Finland and Denmark have seen a reduction in theirs.

Moreover, there is something remarkable, indeed admirable, about the sheer confidence displayed by the Swedish state, which insists on the feasibility of its model, which differs from the practices implemented by nearly all other countries. Tegnell has made several public statements to the effect that the others are wrong, while he is right.

The economy is also a factor. It is not a uniquely Swedish concern, to put it mildly, but the modern Swedish state, Folkhemmet (‘the People's home’), developed from the interwar years onwards, has always represented a progressive, future-oriented kind of nation-building based on belief in scientific and technological progress, economic growth, citizen loyalty and an instrumentalist, productivist view of society. Accepting a deep recession would run counter to the values and practices on which Swedish society are based. Norwegian nationalism, by contrast, is backward-looking and has strong elements of rural romanticism and ideas of cultural authenticity.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Swedes tend to follow government advice. Like model citizens of a Foucauldian society where gouvermentalité is so deeply embedded in the fabric of society and so thoroughly internalised by the citizens that few overt sanctions are necessary, Swedes are expected to follow state instructions. (As a matter of fact, the young Foucault spent four years in Uppsala in the 1950s.) During the pandemic, Swedish politicians have said that they expect people to behave ‘sensibly’, in other words ensuring the protection of vulnerable groups, keeping social distance, washing their hands and preventing the spread of the virus to the best of their abilities. The contrast with South Africa, where armed men in uniform guard the entrances of blocks of flats in townships, or France, where people risk hefty fines if they violate the strict rules restricting their mobility, is striking. Jaywalking, common in Norway, is frowned upon in Sweden. At the same time, Swedish media regularly report about people who fail to follow the state's advice, crowding irresponsibly in nightspots and so on.

The residents of Stockholm continue, at the time of this writing, to enjoy the sunshine in outdoor cafes; they go to work and school, and there is no general lockdown. Swedish exceptionalism has taken an unexpected turn. The extent of internalised norms through governmentality, the importance of keeping the wheels turning and the widespread confidence in scientific models has, paradoxically, turned the Swedish ‘nanny state’ into a liberal or even neoliberal haven of individual freedom.

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