Swedish exceptionalism has been ended by coronavirus

Through a uniquely slack approach (seen by many as the largely debunked “herd immunity” approach, even if the government denies this), Sweden reached the highest Covid-19 deaths per capita in the world in May. It still circles around the top, with more than 5,200 deaths – five times as many as in Norway, Finland and Denmark combined. After months of a mainly one-sided debate, critical voices are mounting. Even Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, admits to fault. But this has not been enough to change his agency’s strategy, which a majority of Swedes still have confidence in – although that support has waned.

The idea of the “opinion corridor”, which has become infamous in the discussion around Sweden, helps illuminate why the country’s Covid-19 debate has been so flawed. It refers to the narrow range of opinions deemed appropriate in Swedish media. Although not entirely different to other concepts on discourse parameters, the opinion corridor is a particular product of Sweden’s attachment to consensus building. Ask any expat there and they’ll tell you how committed Swedes are to this as an end in itself. They will probably also tell you that going against the grain in Sweden can have real consequences, whether it be social or career costs…

The result is a highly cloistered discourse in which a few dozen Swedish media pundits determine what is and isn’t deemed permissible debate: and the idea that Sweden had got it completely wrong on coronavirus was considered anathema. Quickly, the weight of opinion – through analysis in opinion pages, and broadcast and social media – laid emphasis on the view that Sweden was doing the right thing by refusing to engage in a mass lockdown or deploy a test, trace and isolate model. Despite this being totally out of line with the rest of the world, I’ve never received so much ad hominem vitriol from colleagues as I did after I wrote an article for Slate critical of the Swedish model.