While dwelling on the peculiarities of the Swedish COVID-19 strategy in an interview with the British magazine New Statesman, Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell underscored the role of immigrant communities in the spread.
Tegnell argued that the corona pandemic in Sweden shouldn't be compared with that of its fellow Nordic countries, instead drawing parallels with more multicultural cities such as London or Brussels.
“The pandemic took off in Sweden in a different way than in our neighbouring countries. We had a huge spread in Stockholm at the beginning, which was much more similar to the spread you saw in London, Amsterdam, and Brussels, which in many ways are more similar to Sweden than our neighbouring countries,” Tegnell told the New Statesman. “Stockholm and these other cities have large populations from other countries, which is important because the spread is greater and faster among these populations.”
According to the Statistics Sweden, the proportion of the population with a foreign background according to the Swedish definition, which is born abroad or domestically with two immigrant parents, is about a third in Stockholm, peaking at over 90 percent in some districts. A similar picture is seen in other major Swedish cities, including Gothenburg and Malmö.
Of the first ten deaths in Stockholm, six occurred among the Somali community (which accounts for less that one percent of the city’s population). Swedish authorities explained this with delays in translating health information into other languages.
Tegnell also challenged the popular notion of a no-lockdown Sweden. In practice, he contended, Sweden had a lockdown just as its neighbours – not due to measures mandated by the government, but because the population changed their habits.
“We stopped travelling to an even greater extent than our neighbouring countries. The airports had no departures, and the trains ran with far below their capacity,” the epidemiologist noted.
Likewise, Tegnell rejected that idea that Sweden was consciously betting on “herd immunity”, allowing the majority of the population to contract COVID-19 in the hope of building up resistance. Despite contradictory messaging on its desirability by the Swedish authorities, and some Swedish regions such as Norrbotten County openly embracing the idea of herd immunity as a goal, Tegnell insisted that a “genuine” herd immunity strategy could be disastrous, as it risks overwhelming the health care system and leaving people with long-term consequences.
However, Sweden’s approach has not been entirely free of problems: as of mid-October, it had recorded the 15th-highest per capita death rate in the world (with 581 deaths per million people). While this is still only half that of world leader Peru, it is around ten times higher than the death rate in neighbouring Finland and Norway.
Finally, Tegnell admitted to mistakes, among other things, stressing that the Swedish elderly care, where most of the fatalities have occurred, was poorly prepared for the pandemic. All in all, Sweden has seen over 106,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 6,000 deaths.