Anders Tegnell. Picture: TT NEWS AGENCY VIA REUTERS/PONTUS LUNDAHL
Anders Tegnell. Picture: TT NEWS AGENCY VIA REUTERS/PONTUS LUNDAHL

Stockholm — Sweden’s top epidemiologist has admitted his strategy to fight Covid-19 resulted in too many deaths, after persuading his country to avoid a strict lockdown.

“If we were to encounter the same illness with the same knowledge that we have today, I think our response would land somewhere in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done,” Anders Tegnell said in an interview with Swedish Radio.

Tegnell is the brains behind Sweden’s controversial approach to fighting the coronavirus, and the government of Stefan Löfven has deferred to the epidemiologist in its official response to the pandemic. Gatherings of more than 50 people continue to be banned, but throughout the crisis Swedes have been able to visit restaurants, go shopping, attend gyms and send children under 16 to school.

The more lax approach to containing the virus has drawn both praise and indignation from across the world. What is beyond debate, however, is the effect the strategy has had on the country’s death toll. At 43 deaths per 100,000, Sweden’s death rate is among the highest globally and far exceeds that of neighbouring Denmark and Norway, which imposed much tougher lockdowns at the outset of the pandemic.

Now, Tegnell, for the first time, has admitted publicly that the strategy is resulting in too many deaths. “Clearly, there is potential for improvement in what we have done in Sweden,” he said.

Falling behind

Until now, Tegnell argued that the long-term nature of the Covid-19 pandemic required a more sustainable response than severe and sudden lockdowns. Despite criticism from abroad, Tegnell’s strategy enjoyed widespread support in Sweden.

But with many other EU countries now rolling back their lockdowns after appearing to bring Covid-19 under control, there are signs that Sweden may be left behind. That includes the freedom of movement of its citizens, as some EU countries restrict access to people coming from what are deemed high-risk Covid-19 zones.

What’s more, there’s so far limited evidence that Sweden’s decision to leave much of its society open will support the economy. Finance minister Magdalena Andersson recently warned that Sweden is facing its worst economic crisis since World War 2, with GDP set to slump 7% in 2020, roughly as much as the rest of the EU.

The government has started to grow concerned at the apparent missteps taken to fight the spread of the virus in Sweden. On Monday, Löfven promised there’d be an inquiry into the handling of the crisis before the summer.

Some lawmakers in Sweden’s parliament were quick to weigh in. Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, tweeted that the comments by Tegnell are “astonishing ... For months, critics have been consistently dismissed. Sweden has done everything right, the rest of the world has done it wrong. And now, suddenly, this.” 

Bloomberg