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What Sweden can teach us about coronavirus

The system was slashed after the end of the Cold War, but in 2015 — partly in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine — the Swedish government decided to resurrect the program.

The first total defense exercise since 1988 was launched last fall. The exercise, which is still underway, is led by the armed forces and the civil protection and public safety agency, and involves the participation of government agencies, businesses and volunteers.

Sweden’s coronavirus strategy is based on the same idea. It’s not everyone-for-himself — as face mask refusers in the United States or Brazil would have it — but everyone-for-the-community.

While there’s no denying that Sweden’s approach has, so far, led to a much higher death toll than in many of its neighbors, Stockholm is betting it will be proved right in the long run.

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A comparison to, say, Portugal, a similarly sized country that locked down hard and early, is dispiriting. Sweden has suffered 61,137 infections and 5,280 deaths, compared with Portugal’s 41,189 infections and 1,561 deaths.

It’s important to note, however, that the largest number of deaths in Sweden has occurred in care homes. Of the people who died by June 1, 2,036 lived in care homes, and 1,062 were elderly people living at home looked after by government-funded carers. While, this is a problem that certainly needs to be addressed, it also means that it’s too early to write off the country’s coronavirus strategy as an overall failure.

Sweden is betting that strict coronavirus rules like those imposed in virtually every other European country can only work in the short term. Treating citizens as children lacking the judgment to make wise decisions is not a sustainable approach. Addressing a prolonged crisis, or one that comes in repeated waves, will require citizens to be active and responsible participants in their security — not mere recipients of government instructions.

“The long-term sustainability of strict rules isn’t that big,” Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist in charge of the Swedish coronavirus response, recently told a Danish interviewer. “You can only impose such restrictions for a limited time. So, you need to find a different way, and our model may prove more sustainable.”

He may very well be right. Swedes are demonstrating that collective responsibility is possible: Even though the government has only issued behavioral guidelines and individuals don’t face fines for non-compliance, 93 percent of the population say they are following social-distancing recommendations.

Instead of ridiculing Sweden, international observers should inform themselves about the historical background of the country’s approach — and ask themselves what there is to learn from the Swedish example.

The World Health Organization has already taken notice, with its top emergencies expert, Mike Ryan, pointing to the country as an example for others coming out of lockdowns. “If we are to reach a new normal, in many ways Sweden represents a future model,” he said in April.

The Swedish model of collective action also has important lessons that go far beyond public health efforts.

The biggest looming crisis of all, climate change, will require far more radical change than governments have so far committed to — and that will only be possible with the active, informed participation of their citizens.

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