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‘Like North Korea’: Sweden’s Coronavirus Critics Silenced

Adrian Goldberg reports on how those opposing controversial Swedish Coronavirus policies are met with social disapproval and a media blackout

People without face masks in Stockholm in October 2020. Photo: Eklund Robert/Stella Pictures/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

‘Like North Korea’ Sweden’s Coronavirus Critics Silenced

Adrian Goldberg reports on how those opposing controversial Swedish COVID-19 policies are met with social disapproval and a media blackout

Sweden’s notoriously ‘relaxed’ Coronavirus strategy led by public health official Anders Tegnell hasn’t only come at the price of one of the world’s worst death rates – it has also exposed the limits of the country’s tolerance of free speech and scientific debate.

Members of the medical profession and ordinary citizens in Sweden have told Byline Times that they have been subject to a ferocious backlash – including death threats, abuse in public, and in some cases losing their jobs.

Despite faring significantly worse than its Nordic neighbours Denmark, Finland and Norway, there has been relatively little opposition to official COVID-19 policy within the Swedish mainstream media – which has benefitted from two huge Government bail-outs this year.

One of Tegnell’s most outspoken critics is Jon Tallinger, a GP from Tranas, a small rural city about 160 miles south of Stockholm. During the first wave of the virus in April, Tallinger condemned guidelines which advised medics to keep elderly care home residents suspected of having COVID-19 away from hospital and treat them in situ. Doctors were told to prescribe these patients a cocktail of palliative drugs such as morphine (which restricts breathing) rather than oxygen which might have saved their lives.

Tallinger said he believes this amounted to a “really big euthanasia programme” and that “nobody protested”. He paid a high price for his bluntness, both professionally and personally: “I’ve been called a Nazi, a Communist, a Russian spy, an alarmist,” he added.

After coming under pressure from his employer, Tallinger not only left his job, but quit his country, too – professionally at least – by taking a post in Denmark. He believes that continuing to work in Sweden would have compromised his commitment to the Hippocratic Oath, the ethical pledge taken by doctors.

The Swedish Government has never spoken of a programme of euthanasia, but in an interview with the Aftonbladet newspaper in June, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said that “we have to admit that when it comes to elderly care [the plan] has not worked. Too many old people have died here”. 

His admission is underpinned by grim statistics. At one point in the Summer, Sweden had the world’s fifth highest per capita death rate from the Coronavirus and nearly half of those who have died have been in care homes. Older people were evidently viewed – as it seems they were in Britain – as collateral damage in the battle to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

None of this seems to have dented the popularity of Tegnell’s approach which, in sharp contrast to the UK and most other European countries, has seen Sweden reject widespread compulsory lockdowns. Bars, cafés, schools, gyms and businesses have all remained open throughout the crisis, albeit with an emphasis on physical distancing and personal responsibility.

Banning Masks

Like British Brexiters who revel in their country’s (alleged) ability to stand alone in the world, many Swedes have taken pride in their country’s exceptionalism.

This is most evident on the issue of face coverings. The body of evidence suggesting that wearing masks is likely to be an effective means of reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission has been growing for months, which is why they are now recommended by the World Health Organisation and have become mandatory in shops and on public transport in Britain.

Sweden’s Public Health Agency, however, remains defiantly sceptical, arguing that “the effectiveness of masks in combatting the spread of infection is unclear”. It is a dispute which, again with echoes of Brexit, has become a toxic force in Swedish national life, capable of splitting families and destroying long-term friendships.

When Dr Dorota Szlosowska, a consultant lung specialist from Poland who has worked in Sweden since 2013, insisted on wearing a mask at work, it cost her a job.

She was employed as a locum at a hospital in the eastern city of Sundsvall and said that “putting on a mask made sense”. She told Byline Times: “I was on a ward where around 80% of patients had lung cancer, but I was made to feel like a freak.”

She said that colleagues would pretend that they couldn’t understand what she was saying and that her contract was terminated in October, despite having several weeks left to run. Dr Szlosowska has been told that she is now barred from working in five different regions of the country because of her insistence on covering her face, even though specialists in her field of pulmonology are in short supply.  

The emotion that Sweden can’t be doing that badly is very strong.

Martin Jordo

“Sweden is like North Korea,” she added. “Politics is more important than evidence. They would rather see people die, than admit they are wrong.”

Anna Jansson* from Stockholm said that she had been “frozen out” by friends for arguing the case for mask-wearing on social media.

“It’s grown quiet around me,” she told Byline Times. “I can’t talk to anyone I interact with normally about this. It’s tearing me apart to work as a doctor.”

Selma Persson* described a confrontation which flared up with the owner of a shop she has used regularly for years: “We had been discussing mask wearing, and she ended up yelling at me, right in my face, shouting ‘we don’t wear masks in Sweden. Anders Tegnell has said we don’t do it here’”.

‘Public Health Nationalism’

It is perhaps unsurprising that Tegnell’s (relatively) laissez faire approach has won support from the ‘Alt-right’ and conservative right, both in the US and the UK. But, at first glance, his appeal to his own citizens is less obvious. Doesn’t his apparent libertarianism sit uneasily with Sweden’s reputation as a paragon of social democracy?  

Not according to Martin Jordo, a spokesperson for the left-wing Feminist Initiative Party, who argues that the country’s comfort blanket of a “cradle to the grave” welfare state has inspired what he describes as “public health nationalism”.

“We have a reputation for very good health care, and it is good,” he said. “But this leads to a false confidence that the authorities know what they are doing. The emotion that Sweden can’t be doing that badly is very strong.”

Yet Sweden is doing badly.  

The British Medical Journal reported in September its rate of 581 deaths per million population, compared to just 62 deaths per million population next door in Finland. Nor has its economy shown any greater resilience than that of its neighbours which have all embraced more restrictive lockdowns of the kind shunned by Tegnell.

In other countries, the evident failure of his singular approach would surely have attracted more adverse comment, but in Sweden there is an uncommon degree of trust in public institutions and a traditional culture of consensus – which critics say extends to an all too cosy relationship between the state and the media.

Keith Begg, a communications specialist who grew up in Ireland and now lives in Stockholm, was so appalled by the absence of a counter-narrative that he created Media Watchdogs of Sweden, a pressure group aimed at challenging what he regards as compliant newspapers and television networks.

“They let what many of us see as incompetent experts rule the roost,” he told Byline Times. “They will publish verbatim what they say and let it go unchallenged.”

In Begg’s view it is not entirely coincidental that Swedish media organisations have shared in two Government-funded bail-outs worth a combined kr700 million (around £60 million) this year to make up for advertising lost because of the virus. Who, he asks, would bite the hand that so generously feeds it?  

According to Begg, “the media have been complicit in supporting a strategy that in my view has tragically and miserably failed”. He has been targeted with anonymous death threats, and his address has been published online, accompanied by the chilling message, “Get Him”.

Undeterred, Begg wants Tegnell to be held to account for “historical revisionism” over his belief in ‘herd immunity’ – the concept with which the epidemiologist is most closely associated.

‘They Were After Herd Immunity’

Herd immunity occurs when the spread of a disease slows down and eventually stops because a critical mass of people in a population have become infected and resistant to it.

In recent days, Tegnell has called herd immunity both futile and immoral but emails released under Freedom of Information show that he was certainly discussing the idea with colleagues earlier this year. In April he claimed that “we could reach herd immunity in Stockholm within a matter of weeks”.

Anders Vahlne, a Professor at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden’s largest medical academic research centre, said “there is absolutely no question in my mind that they were after herd immunity”.

“Tegnell talked all the time about trying to ‘flatten the curve’ and avoiding overwhelming the public hospitals,” he told Byline Times. “They’ve let the virus spread. I’d say everything they’ve been doing points to herd immunity.”

Professor Vahlne led a group of scientists from some of Sweden’s leading universities and research institutions (a group dubbed ‘The 22’) who have been opposing Tegnell as far back as April. In what has become a familiar tale, some his colleagues among The 22 were met with the full force of professional disapproval, with one being told by her departmental chair that she was a “troublemaker” and “a danger to society”.

“What really strikes me is that medical community in Sweden has not seen through this,” Professor Vahlne added. “They think it’s fine.”

Although Tegnell maintains his ‘no lockdown in Sweden’ mantra, the state of Upsala has recently told residents to avoid using public transport, stop going to parties and to socialise only within their own household. This is not compulsory but it is a lockdown in all but name and appears to be similar to the measures employed elsewhere in Europe – which Sweden has, until now, firmly resisted.

It has taken some getting there, but maybe those muffled voices of protest are finally being heard; and not just heard, but listened to.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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