Sat 23 January 2021

Speaking exclusively to Adrian Goldberg for the Byline Times Podcast, Professor Nele Brusselaers explains why the Coronavirus crisis has made her see a country known for its sophistication and liberalism in a stark new light

A senior researcher at Sweden’s leading medical research university has spoken of her relief at quitting the country following clashes over its controversial laissez faire COVID policy.

In her first interview with a UK news outlet, Professor Nele Brusselaers told the Byline Times Podcast that she felt compelled to return to her home country of Belgium and quit Stockholm after eight years because dissenting voices like hers were simply ignored.

Professor Brusselaers, who researches cancer and women’s health at the prestigious Karolinska Instituet said: “It felt a big relief to be gone. With this Corona crisis, I was just upset at the way people handled it and the complete lack of discussion. If you just dared to ask questions like ‘why is Sweden not following the advice of the WHO (World Health Organisation)?’ you just ran into a wall and people were really acting aggressively, and even among scientists there was just no discussion at all.

“It was just like ‘no, those in charge are right. Don’t question it’. And for me that’s a really weird thing because as a researcher you are supposed to question everything.”

Although social distancing and working from home have been encouraged in Sweden during the Coronavirus pandemic, many schools, bars, restaurants and gyms have remained open. The Government only recently announced a U-turn on the wearing of protective masks.

The liberal Swedish approach has been championed by figures on the right in the UK including talkRADIO host Julia Hartley-Brewer and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, as well as US President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus special advisor Scott Atlas.

But it has not prevented rates of infection from rising, with Sweden now registering more than 8,000 COVID-19-related deaths – a figure which is four times higher than that of all its Nordic neighbours (Denmark, Norway and Finland) combined.

As a scientist, what Professor Brusselaers finds baffling is that Sweden has been resistant to the idea that people who have the condition without showing symptoms might be able to spread the virus – what’s known as asymptomatic transmission.  And she said that people who have the virus are still allowed to go outside and carry out basic domestic chores.

“Even when you tested positive and had symptoms yourself, you’re supposed to got into quarantine, but it’s no problem to drop your kids off to school and go to the supermarket” she told the Byline Times Podcast, exasperated.

Professor Brusselaers admits that the crisis has made her see Sweden in a different light: “It was described as a paradise for epidemiologists because they have such a gold mine of health data – that was one of the reasons I went there. They have so many epidemiologists, so many researchers and so many resources for testing and tracing, and they’re just not using it. So many people, not just epidemiologists, offered their help and it was just like ‘ah, we don’t need it.’”

Like many observers inside Sweden, Professor Brusselaers talks of Swedish exceptionalism and arrogance, underpinned by a largely pliant media which was bolstered during the pandemic by two huge Government bail-outs.

She said that, on a personal level, she has seen friends fall out and even couples split up because of the poisonous divisions generated by the debate.

“I think the whole reaction to this pandemic has caused more harm than the actual pandemic because so many people are afraid, so many people have run into such emotional encounters,” she said. “Three weeks ago, a friend of mine had to go into a clinic, and the security person took his mask off his face and threw it on the ground and said ‘masks are not allowed’”.

But while Professor Brusselaers is relieved to have left the country, there is a sadness too, at having faced resistance for simply promoting a widely accepted scientific consensus in an apparently enlightened, sophisticated and liberal country.

“It’s been emotionally difficult this year,” she added. “It scars. You can’t just turn the page and move on.”

Listen now to the full interview with Dr Nele Brusselaers on the Byline Times Podcast with Adrian Goldberg, which also features journalist Kelly Bjorklund and Dr Anders Jansson

Thank youfor reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out about us

Our leading investigations include Russian Interference, Coronavirus, Cronyism and Far Right Radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

Support our journalists

To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.

But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees:

Or donate to our seasonal crowdfunder to hire an additional journalist to conduct more investigations.

More stories filed under The Coronavirus Crisis

More stories filed under Reportage