Why Sweden Isn't Locking Down
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GARCIA: Sheltering in, economic shutdowns - cities across the world are doing all these things, from Seattle to Singapore to Santiago. And it is, of course, all being done in the name of fighting and hopefully conquering coronavirus.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
And it has also come at great cost. For instance, we learned today that last week, 6 million more people filed for unemployment in the U.S., which means in the last few weeks, at least 16 million Americans have lost their jobs.
GARCIA: But we have to do it, right? I mean, this is the only way, or at least the best way, to save lives. Everyone is doing this all across the world. Well, almost everybody.
OSCAR TORNELL: As for now, we're open.
SMITH: Oscar Tornell is the manager of Soap Bar in Stockholm, Sweden.
TORNELL: It's a proper nightclub, so we play everything from, you know, hip-hop to Swedish oldies to techno to house.
SMITH: Soap Bar has been open for more than 20 years. And typically, it does a ton of business.
TORNELL: On a Friday or Saturday, we have about 600 to 700 people through the doors.
GARCIA: Now a crowded, sweaty nightclub with people bunched together might seem like the first kind of business that would have to be shut down in the middle of a pandemic. But Soap Bar has actually stayed open.
SMITH: They are letting in way fewer people, and they're asking people to stay at least three feet apart. And Oscar says people are actually pretty good about this in general, except, of course, when it gets late and everybody's had a few drinks. Then Oscar has to step in and do what he can to get people to observe social distancing.
TORNELL: If you play, like, a slow song and people start, like, slow dancing, like couples and stuff, you need to sort of upbeat the tempo.
GARCIA: So, Oscar says, there are some new go-to songs for dance floor social distancing.
TORNELL: We got this guy called Victor Leksell. He's pretty big. And also all the old ones, like Carola - El Carola (ph), ABBA.
GARCIA: That's right. Oscar is using ABBA to enforce social distancing on the dance floor.
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GARCIA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.
SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, the Swedish exception. While most of the world is locking down, rolling up the sidewalks and sheltering in, Sweden has made the controversial decision not to shut down its economy. There are no mandatory quarantines. And museums, bars, restaurants, gyms, schools, even nightclubs are open for business.
GARCIA: So after a quick break, we are going to speak with Sweden's head epidemiologist about why Sweden is not locking cities down and what the effects have been, at least so far.
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ABBA: (Singing) Half past 12 watching the late show in my flat...
SMITH: Anders Tegnell is the head epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency of Sweden. He says Sweden is not mandating people stay home or that businesses close, and they're not requiring people to quarantine or stay inside.
ANDERS TEGNELL: Basically because the tradition was not to do that, to work on a voluntary basis instead, using common sense and informing them about what we need to achieve and then letting them, to a certain extent, make their own decisions on how to achieve it.
GARCIA: Anders says Sweden has asked people to stay home if they're feeling ill, to work from home if possible and to maintain at least three feet of social distance when they're just out and about in public. And more recently, gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned. Anders claims so far, it's working.
TEGNELL: We can really see that Swedes are moving around a lot less than normally. So even if they're not forced to stop moving around, they still do it.
SMITH: What about the sidewalks? Like, walking around the city, does it feel more empty? Are there fewer people?
TEGNELL: It feels more empty. It's not empty, definitely not. On a sunny day, nobody can keep a Swede inside.
GARCIA: Anders says that the decision not to ask businesses to close and not to mandate people to quarantine, that was not an economic decision. In fact, by Sweden's own projections, its economy won't fare all that much better than the rest of Europe's economy.
SMITH: Yeah. Anders says the decision not to lock Sweden down was a public health decision.
TEGNELL: We look at other consequences for public health, like closing schools. That causes enormous problems, not least for the health of the children. I mean, children that already are disadvantaged, if you close down the schools, this is the one good thing they have sometimes in life. This is where they get their food. This is where they get their social context. So closing schools is not a good thing.
SMITH: I mean, it does seem to be, at least for the scientific consensus, that sheltering in is the best way to save lives. I mean, you're going against that. I mean, people, I would think, would say that, you know, you're risking people's lives. You're costing lives by this decision.
TEGNELL: No. I'm not sure that there is a scientific consensus on, really, about anything when it comes to this new coronavirus, basically because we don't have much evidence for any kind of measures we are taking.
GARCIA: Anders points to a study from the Imperial College in London, which has been a very influential place when it comes to setting government policy in response to coronavirus. And that study found that a long-term lockdown was not necessarily the best decision for public health.
SMITH: And another recent study from Harvard's Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases found that a long lockdown was less effective at dealing with pandemics than shorter, more-targeted social distancing measures.
GARCIA: Even so, some evidence is surfacing right now in Sweden that would seem to indicate otherwise, that it's more-relaxed approach actually is costing lives. The death rate in Sweden has soared past those of its neighboring countries Denmark and Norway, both of which have imposed economic lockdowns. And around half of the elderly homes in Stockholm have been infected with coronavirus.
SMITH: The death rate so far from coronavirus in Sweden is growing quite a bit and at a faster pace than in places like Denmark, which have done a total lockdown. I mean, does that worry you?
TEGNELL: Yeah, definitely. It does.
SMITH: Does it ever worry you that you've made the wrong decision?
TEGNELL: I mean, I think everybody, at least everybody who has any kind of analytic mind, are worried about the decisions we're taking now. Everybody in every country is taking decisions they haven't taken before.
GARCIA: Anders says that he and his colleagues, they themselves have been discussing this constantly at the public cafe that they all go to.
TEGNELL: Of course we're wondering if this is the right thing to do. I think we're doing the best things we can figure out given the circumstances and the tools we have in place. And we're probably going to discuss this for decades to come, if this was the proper thing to do or not.
SMITH: Anders says so far, the Swedish public has been very supportive of their approach. He gets a lot of emails from people encouraging him to keep going.
GARCIA: And he says there are signs that the death rate in Sweden might peak next week. But if it does not, if the death rate does continue to grow, then the government would likely have to consider a full lockdown.
SMITH: For now, though, he says Sweden is sticking to its guns. And he points out there is one huge advantage to their approach.
TEGNELL: That it is sustainable. These are measures we could keep on doing for months and maybe even years if we have to.
SMITH: Whereas, Anders says, things like keeping kids out of school, forcing businesses to close, that's not really sustainable for all that long. Sweden's approach, on the other hand, he says, is far less disruptive to people's lives and to businesses.
GARCIA: Soap Bar manager Oscar Tornell says he's glad, for his part, that the economy has stayed open. He says the club staff is kind of like a family. And even though Soap Bar had to lay off 10 people, it was still able to keep most of its core staff. Oscar says that with the smaller crowds, the club is not making much money, but it is scraping by, along with a lot of other businesses in Sweden.
TORNELL: We might be on the right path. I don't know, basically. It's a bit of limbo today. But we'll see, you know, as the weeks go by.
SMITH: In the meantime, Oscar says he will keep going to work, making sure the bathrooms are cleaned all the time, making sure the tables are far enough apart, and, you know, playing ABBA when people start to get handsy. And when ABBA doesn't work, he says, he breaks out the big guns.
TORNELL: If large groups gets together, I just turn the music down, and then no one thinks it's funny to dance to a song when it's - when the music is really low. So people go back to their seats, basically.
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR's editor is Paddy Hirsch, and it is a production of NPR.
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