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Living under Sweden’s controversial herd immunity approach to COVID-19

Ebba Bengtsson and Simon Björkman should be getting married this week. Instead they are bunkered down in mountain cottage a couple of hour’s drive from their home in Sweden.The couple are living through the country’s herd immunity approach to coronavirus. And, despite both contracting the deadly virus and being forced to postpone their honeymoon, they stand by their government’s controversial health policy.Simon and Ebba’s holiday location in Sweden where they went for a short holiday instead of having their wedding. (Supplied)

As an ER nurse, Ms Bengtsson has spent the last six months working on the front line of the country’s fight against COVID-19.

In March, the hospital where she works in Gothenburg was turned into a dedicated coronavirus clinic where people would come to be tested and treated for the virus.

It wasn’t long before Ms Bengtsson began developing mild symptoms of COVID-19.

Within days, Mr Björkman was experiencing similar symptoms. But unlike Australia, where people are encouraged to be tested for even the mildest of symptoms, Swedes were only able to access a test if they were an essential worker or experiencing severe or life-threatening symptoms.

“I was sure I didn’t have COVID. I was feeling great, but I took the test to make sure I could go back to work and I had it, it was so surreal,” Ms Bengtsson told nine.com.au.

“The morning after I had taken the test I woke up with cold symptoms, stuffy nose, sneezing and all my taste and smell was gone, completely gone. It was really strange.”

Ebba Bengtsson while on a shift at a hospital in Gothenberg. (Supplied)

At the time of the infection taking hold, COVID-19 tests were not available in Sweden for the general public. Like Australia, the country prioritised those who were presenting with severe symptoms and required hospital care, as well as essential workers, like Ebba.

“But we live together, and I got sick at the time, so I’ve just assumed I got it,” Mr Björkman said.

“We didn’t take any tests unless people needed to spend the night in hospital,” Ms Bengtsson explained.

“If you’re feeling just a normal cold there’s nothing we do, you just go home and stay home and don’t see other people until you’re well,” she said.

While Sweden persisted with its response, countries around Scandinavia and Europe began to instill lockdowns.

“When other countries started closing schools, it was really quite scary and in Sweden we were very aware but at the same time we were just going about our usual day,” she said.

“I work at the ER so it was very real to me, but at the same time we had the strategy was that some people had to get sick and as long as our hospitals can handle the number of people getting sick, we’re on a good level.”

Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist for Sweden’s Public Health Agency, described his country’s strategy in a local radio program as a “classic pandemic model” that he had been discussing with international colleagues for 20 years.

“It was as if the world went crazy and everything we discussed seemed completely forgotten,” Mr Tegnell told Swedish public radio channel Sveriges Radio P1.

Simon and Ebba while on Holiday. (Supplied)

Sweden, a country of 10 million people, has so far recorded more than 62,320 coronavirus cases and 5209 deaths.

Despite having a population of than double Sweden’s, Australia has only recorded 438 deaths.

The US has a population of 328 million and has registered over 172,000 deaths.

The number of fatalities is far more than its Nordic neighbours and one of the highest per capita death rates in the world.

Despite this, the country doesn’t make it into the top 20 countries for case-fatality ratio which includes Iran, Argentina, Italy, Romania and Chile, all of which rate in the top 30 per cent on the government response stringency index.

The country’s case and death numbers have also fallen steadily since June and there hasn’t been a second wave of infections despite having few restrictions in place.

Sweden has been heavily scrutinised for not having a lockdown at all – but they did. It just wasn’t compulsory.

Rather than enforcing a hard lockdown, the Swedish government only closed universities and other schools with pupils aged 15 and older. It also recommended that everyone older than 70 and anyone with symptoms typical of COVID-19 self-isolate.

People gather for a drink at an outdoor bar in Stockholm, Sweden, Wednesday April 22, 2020 despite the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP) (AP/AAP)

Gatherings of over 50 people were banned and some venues that couldn’t maintain social distancing were forced to close however the decision to work from home, stay inside and avoid close physical contact was left up to the people.

Ms Bengtsson and Mr Björkman say the strategy reflects Swedish society more broadly.

“In Sweden, we have a very strong culture of listening to the government and recommendations. We listen to guidelines,” Mr Björkman said.

“For example, the rule that you can’t have more than 50 people in a group, so some nightclubs have been shut down but other than that it’s up to the individual or the individual workplace.”

Ms Bengtsson said Swedes like that there wasn’t a government ordered lockdown because “we like to make our own choices and feel free”.

“But we also make the right decisions and we like to feel like we can choose. But we feel the responsibility to do the right thing. We listened well the recommendations almost like a law,” she said.

People gather in a park in Stockholm, Sweden, Wednesday April 22, 2020 despite the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP) (AP/AAP)

Mr Björkman believes it’s more than just the deaths and number of cases that need to be considered.

“I think we’ve pulled through it stronger than many other countries,” he said.

“You have to take into account that if life shuts down and people get locked in, that has consequences for public health as well. People don’t feel well if they’re locked in their houses and lose their jobs, which are consequences of a complete lockdown. This is why I think that Swedes are less affected mentally compares to other countries.”

He said if you allow a completely economic collapse in a society, it’s going to bring “a huge devastation and casualties”.

Yet, despite this the couple say it remains to be seen whether Sweden’s strategy will pay off.

“If they take three years to find a vaccine then our society will work faster than everyone else, but if the vaccine comes out tomorrow then maybe we’ve taken an unnecessary risk,” Mr Björkman said.

“It’s so had to know what the future will bring us.”


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