Sweden’s foreign minister says there’s been a “misunderstanding” in the United States about her country’s Covid-19 policies — which have been distinctly more liberal than the strict lockdowns instituted across much of the rest of Europe and North America.
Ann Linde told POLITICO that Sweden is not a libertarian nirvana: the government has moved to limit online gambling in recent days, is closing restaurants that break social distancing rules, and has forbidden family visits to nursing homes.
But, added Linde, “this is a marathon not a sprint” and policy “needs to be on a level that’s acceptable to the people.”
Sweden’s public health agency believes “It’s good for people to be outdoors, to have walks” she said. “If you’re locked inside there’s risk of depression, domestic violence, alcohol abuse” Linde continued, echoing a point President Donald Trump has often made.
Sweden’s relatively lax approach to controlling the coronavirus pandemic — keeping restaurants, other businesses and most schools open — has made the country a symbol for far-right activists in the United States and Europe as they push to ease domestic restrictions in their own countries.
But Linde brushed off that support in remarks to POLITICO Wednesday, her first public comments in Washington since the coronavirus crisis began shuttering the globe last month.
Linde said she clarified the country’s approach during a virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well.
The endorsement of far-right groups, “doesn’t mean much”, she said, because Sweden is managing the pandemic “according to our tradition” and won’t change strategy because of outside voices.
And she noted that inside Sweden, it’s not just the far-right Sweden Democrats who are supporting the government’s approach: all eight parties represented in the Swedish Parliament are in agreement.
Linde believes Sweden can afford to have looser rules because the government enjoys “high levels of trust.”
“Government advice is not some tip that you follow if you want, it’s seen as something that you should follow,” she explained. By way of example, Linde pointed out that although internal travel in Sweden is not banned, there was a 96 percent decrease in travel to the popular vacation island of Gotland over the Easter weekend holiday.
Critics of Sweden’s approach, however, note that the country has a much higher Covid-19 death rate than its Scandinavian neighbors, including 11 times the number of deaths as neighboring Norway, with only twice the population. Linde, however, told POLITICO, “It’s not much use comparing” the two countries, because so many factors determine how a virus spreads, and different countries use different measures for classifying Covid-19 deaths.
Linde did express concern for Sweden’s failure to keep the coronavirus out of nursing homes, one of the few settings where the country has implemented strict social distancing rules, including forbidding family visits. “There are far too many deaths in the nursing homes,” Linde conceded. “We don’t know why.”
The Swedish government recently set a $ 500-a-week limit for individuals playing online casino and slot machines. And Linde highlighted five restaurants that were also closed this week for breaking social distancing rules.
“We are totally prepared to go in with harder measures if (the rules) are not followed,” Linde said, adding that the government has the legal power to immediately close schools if pandemic circumstances change.
With roughly half of Sweden’s GDP dependent on exports, the government there is working feverishly to hold off the push for more tariffs, and to eliminate them on medical goods. “Global value chains are not working the way they have to work. It’s definitely a bad situation for Sweden,” Linde said.
In her meeting with Pompeo, Linde raised concerns about the state of global trade links. She acknowledged, however, that the United States and Sweden “have different views” on the importance of multilateral trading systems.
Linde was critical of the initial policy response of EU countries to the merging pandemic.
“It was bad at the beginning, better now,” Linde said, citing an end to medical export restrictions and sales taxes on medical products. While willing to contribute to some joint recovery efforts, Sweden, which sits outside the Euro single currency, opposes European Union governments issuing joint bonds to pay for the added costs.
Given its low government debt and the headroom for its own large stimulus package Linde said Sweden prefers to safeguard its own financial stability.
Sweden is following the European Union in keeping its borders closed to non-EU residents, which Linde said it will maintain until the EU collectively decides to re-open. And Linde said her government will “support the United Nations in every way.”
“We have always been big fans of multilateralism,” she added.