The typical explanation for this continued public support is that the Swedes are confident and unwavering. The country’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, the public face of the Swedish response to the pandemic, is after all a dry scientist turned bureaucrat, not a populist politician trying to stir up nationalist emotion.
But below the surface, Sweden is anything but calm. Public debate is ignited with a sense of hurt national pride. As a believer in the kind of liberal nationalism that encourages self-critical national attachment, it hurts me. But as a specialist in nationalism, I recognize the model. This is what Isaiah Berlin called “curved twig” nationalism, which attacks anyone who walks in it.
It started with a vanity that seemed more comical than harmful. Why, asked a columnist, could we not just “let Sweden be Sweden”? Others have suggested that we define ourselves as “smart Sweden” or “friendly Sweden”, the country sheltered from the hysteria of southern Europe.
The next step was ridicule and delegitimization of opponents. A group of 22 scientists has written a joint opinion column arguing for a radical change in strategy. But within hours, no one paid attention to the substance of their arguments. Instead, the debate revolved around the fact that they used Covid-19 death figures, which made Sweden worse than the more conservative estimates of the public health agency. It was certainly awkward, but that did not call into question their main conclusion. Nor does the fact that Sweden currently records nearly six times more deaths per capita than neighboring Norway or Finland.
Then came the contempt for emotions, mixed with misogyny. One of 22 critics, Lena Einhorn, was videotaped from her home. She touched on the research reports and the numbers, but influential columnists have focused on making fun of her hair or her curtains. Her “hysterical” voice when she described the suffering of Covid-19 patients was also widely ridiculed. The detached response from chief epidemiologist Tegnell was hailed as proof of his credibility. It is true that he speaks clinically of death in terms of statistical curves. But it is also true that he did not refute much of the research reports that she cited.
With this trope from Sweden being the only one doing it right, we now seem to have gone on to deny that Sweden is doing something exceptional. An opinion piece from a political scientist suggested that the Guardian “blacklisted” Sweden and that his reports described it as “unrestricted.” “Who would have thought that the fake news of Trump would one day turn out to be somewhat real?” “He concludes.
But these claims are themselves false. The Guardian, among others, rightly pointed out the relatively light restrictions in Sweden. It was also not “false news” when the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Swedish doctors could soon refuse to wear respirators to patients over the age of 80, and even at 60 with health problems with – adjacent. In fact, it is happening now.
Public veneration for Tegnell went far beyond trust. He became an icon, his face appearing on tattoos and baby clothes. Writers otherwise known to cringe at any sign of nationalism describe it as the embodiment of the soul of Sweden. He should be named Swedish of the year, according to the former Minister of Public Health. Serious newspapers publish hagiographic articles on Tegnell and the director of the public health agency, Johan Carlson. Photos of their headquarters flooded with flowers sent by individuals are included.
Some failures of the Swedish model have been recognized. But they are often linked to the lack of “compliance” of immigrants. Former chief epidemiologist Johan Giesecke explains the lack of protection of the elderly in retirement homes by referring to “asylum seekers” and “refugees” among staff, who “do not always understand the information”. It met with silence, if not approval. It may have already been taken up by the Democrats of Sweden, the Swedish anti-immigration party, which now claims that the health of the elderly has been put at risk for the integration of uneducated immigrants.
Advocates of the government’s strategy keep saying it’s too early to assess. But bringing this argument to its logical conclusion suggests that worship should also be postponed until the pandemic is over. Any successful strategy must be transparent and well received by the public. My fear is that in our vigorous defense of the Swedish approach, we have released forces that we cannot control. As is clear to anyone who has followed Brexit, nationalism incapable of handling criticism can easily tear a society apart.
- Gina Gustavsson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Uppsala and an associate member of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. With David Miller, she is co-editor of Liberal Nationalism and Its Critics: Normative and Empirical Questions