WHEN the rest of the world blinked as the coronavirus took hold, Swede Anders Tegnell refused to lock down his nation.
As Sweden’s death toll rose last spring at one of the highest global rates, the once faceless scientist has been accused of creating a ‘pariah state’.
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Yet when I met Tegnell, 64, in the capital Stockholm, he was praised as if he was Abba’s fifth member.
T-shirts proclaiming – like the Carlsberg advertisements – “Tegnell, possibly the best state epidemiologist in the world” are bestsellers.
Because it seems his decision not to lock may have paid off.
On Tuesday, as Britain and other European countries saw an increase in cases, he announced that Sweden had its lowest number of new cases since March.
In the dark days of April, Covid deaths in a single day peaked at 115. Today, on some days, that number is zero.
And while the UK economy shrank 20% in the first three months of the lockdown, Sweden’s only shrank by nine.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tegnell is a hero to many in Sweden and to those around the world who believe draconian lockdowns are self-destructive.
A Swedish rapper immortalized it in song and the epidemiologist has a Facebook fan club of 33,000 members.
In March, when the first wave of coronavirus swept through Europe, outliers from Britain and Sweden ignored the clamor for lockdown.
Then Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London released an explosive study that found 500,000 people could perish from Covid in Britain without strict restrictions. In Sweden, this could have meant 85,000 deaths (so far less than 5,900 have died).
Panicked Britain locked herself in hard. Tegnell has kept Sweden open – relying largely on public goodwill rather than tough new laws to tackle the virus.
A recent survey revealed that eight in ten Swedes say they follow official guidelines.
Gatherings of more than 50 people were banned, but Swedish schools for children under 16, restaurants, bars, gyms and hairdressers all remained open. Tegnell said the border closures were “ridiculous” and that there is “very little evidence” that the masks are effective.
So what is life like in Lockdown-Free Land?
On the airport shuttle, I search for a face mask but the unmasked guard says I don’t need to worry. A poll found that only 6% of Swedes wear them.
Then, on a metro platform during rush hour, I only see a masked passenger.
Molly Robinson, 26, from Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorks, says, “Wearing a mask is your choice.”
Later, in a restaurant, an unmasked and unadvised waitress leads me to a socially distant table. There is no direction arrow, no disinfection station.
In pubs, joy of joy, you can sit at the bar and order a beer, as long as you stay socially distanced.
Nya Carnegiebryggeriet Brewery Pub Restaurant Manager David Manly, 38, says: “We feel like we live in a world different from other countries. We are extremely grateful. ”
At the Headzone salon, hairdresser Fay Botsi, 23, says, “We don’t want to wear masks or visors. We keep our distance and use disinfectant. ”
Wearing one of the Tegnell t-shirts, student Isabell Håkansson, 26, says: “I’m happy that everything is open and we are not locked up.
Junior doctor Sebastian Rushworth, 37, tells me he hasn’t seen a Covid patient in his emergency department for two months.
And the country is well prepared. At the start of the pandemic, he had 526 intensive care beds, and within weeks that number had doubled.
Dr Rushworth, who works at a hospital in the northern suburbs of the capital, believes that Sweden’s resilience is due to the strengthening of herd immunity.
‘MASSACRE CARE AT HOME’
“There is no other reasonable explanation,” he adds. The Swedish government has largely allowed unelected bureaucrat Tegnell to lead its response to the pandemic.
But despite all the success, there have been concerns, including his nursing home crisis.
Until mid-May, half of the deaths in Sweden were in nursing homes, a situation according to Tegnell has now been corrected.
Tegnell’s most vocal critics are the right-wing Swedish Democrat Party, which has described the nursing home deaths as a “massacre”.
Sweden has the fifth highest per capita death rate in Europe, behind Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom and Italy.
Its mortality is five times that of Denmark and about ten times that of Norway and Finland.
Critics say that alone is proof that the Swedish strategy was wrong.
Swedish Stockholm regional leader Gabriel Kroon, 23, says: “We should have locked down. The disease has spread to nursing homes and we have had ten times as many deaths as Finland. I wouldn’t say it’s success.
Nicholas Aylott, professor of political science at Södertörn University, believes cultural norms may have also helped fight the virus.
The 50-year-old academic says, “Most Swedes don’t get together in large groups very often, they don’t go to church a lot, a lot of people live alone or in small households.”
Many Swedes avoided public transport and worked from home.
For many of his compatriots, Tegnell is a cult hero.
So what is it like, I ask him, to be as famous internationally as Abba?
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“I try not to think about it too much,” he said modestly. “I realize that it will pass very quickly.”
The short Swedish summer is over and city dwellers are returning from their vacation chalets to their work and schools.
There may be more Covid spikes. Don’t expect a lockdown U-turn from Ice Man Tegnell.
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