But not Sweden. Restaurants and bars are open in the Nordic country, playgrounds and schools too, and the government is relying on voluntary action to stem the spread of Covid-19.
It’s a controversial approach, and one that’s drawn US President Donald Trump’s attention. “Sweden did that, the herd, they call it the herd. Sweden’s suffering very, very badly,” Trump said on Tuesday.
But the Swedish government is confident its policy can work. Foreign Minister Ann Linde told Swedish TV on Wednesday that Trump was “factually wrong” to suggest that Sweden was following the “herd immunity” theory — of letting enough people catch the virus while protecting the vulnerable, meaning a country’s population builds up immunity against the disease.
Sweden’s strategy, she said, was: “No lockdown and we rely very much on people taking responsibility themselves.”
The country’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, also pushed back against Trump’s criticism that Sweden was doing badly. “I think Sweden is doing okay,” he told CNN affiliate Expressen. “It’s producing quality results the same way it’s always done. So far Swedish health care is handling this pandemic in a fantastic way.”
So did many primary and secondary schools. Gatherings of up to 50 people are still permitted.
Tegnell defended the decision to keep schools open. “We know that closing down schools has a lot of effects on health care because a lot of people can’t go to their work anymore. A lot of children are suffering when they can’t go to school.”
Elisabeth Liden, a journalist in Stockholm, told CNN the city is less crowded now. “The subway went from being completely packed to having only a few passengers per car. I get the sense that a vast majority are taking the recommendations of social distancing seriously.”
But she added that while “some Swedes won´t even kiss their spouse, others are throwing Easter parties.”
Much of Sweden’s focus has been to protect the elderly. Anyone aged 70 or older has been told to stay at home and limit their social contact as much as possible. One Swedish government official said that on the whole people supported the government’s approach, but many were “upset about the fact that no ban on visiting homes for elderly was set until recently [April 1], and now the virus is widely spread among these homes, causing the death toll to rise.”
“Only an ‘all of society’ approach will work to prevent escalation and turn this situation around,” said a WHO Europe spokesperson.
As for deaths, by April 8, coronavirus accounted for 67 fatalities per 1 million Swedish citizens, according to the Swedish Health Ministry. Norway had 19 deaths per million, Finland seven per million. The number of deaths rose 16% on Wednesday.
Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér — a virus immunology researcher at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute — is one of more than 2,000 health professionals and researchers who signed a petition demanding tougher action. She told CNN: “We are not winning this battle. It is horrifying.
“Where I live people are working from home, but they go to local restaurants, local cafés and they mix up old people and young people from schools and universities. That is not social distancing.”
Weather the storm
Tom Britton, professor of mathematical statistics at Stockholm University, models how infectious diseases behave in a population. He believes 40% of the Swedish capital’s population will be infected by the end of April. While acknowledging the difficulty of measuring the rate of infection, he told CNN that “my best guess today would be 10% or a bit more” of Swedes currently have the virus nationwide.
Emma Grossmith, a British employment lawyer working in Stockholm, says another factor in Sweden’s favor is a generous social welfare net that means people don’t feel obligated to turn up for work if their young child is sick. State support kicks in on day one of absence from work due to a child being sick. “The system here was already well set up to help people to make smarter choices which ultimately benefit the wider population,” she told CNN.
But Grossmith notes a big gap between the way Swedes and expatriates view the virus. “There is a native trust in the system amongst those who have grown up with it. In contrast, many of the expat community feel that the strategy has neither been communicated clearly nor robustly challenged in the Swedish press. They are deeply worried.”
The next month will determine whether the Swedish system got it right.
An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate statement about Sweden’s welfare system. This has been corrected.