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In April, Sweden found itself fighting for its international reputation. The world was suddenly reevaluating Brand Sweden, no longer as a place of safe, stable consumables like Volvo cars and flatpack furniture, rather it was a country of weird, dangerous ideas about public health. Sweden has fought hard to counteract this view, with some success. But, it has been an uncomfortable time for those representing Sweden.
The international scrutiny comes at a time when Sweden is reevaluating its place in the world, the theme of this Monthly Policy Review. It will not be helpful to Sweden’s push to change EU priorities or its climate and democracy projects if the overall brand is seen as quirky, rather than trustworthy and reliable.
The Corona Timeline
As we wrote in our March Brief, Sweden’s policies towards fighting the corona virus have been perceived as exceptional in the global context. In Mundus view, this is due to three broad factors. Firstly, Swedish epidemiologists seemed to be less negative about the disease than others, both in terms of its transmissibility and the fatalities that it would cause. Secondly, Sweden has approached the crisis with a long-term view, meaning that officials took into account the maths of epidemic, arguing that the fire would burn itself ou as the herd approached immunity. Thirdly, Sweden’s unique culture means that policies and tactics are possible in Sweden, that would be seen as likely failures elsewhere. This is most obvious in the guidelines that the government has given Swedes, rather than the lockdowns enforced elsewhere.
1st Week of April
Initially, very little thought appears to have been given to the reputational impact that this would cause. Officials were focusing on the disease, with their “evidence-based approach”. If other countries were going to react to emotion, rather than facts, Sweden shrugged its shoulders. As we quoted last month, this view was put perfectly by Johan Giesecke, when he said “The reason Sweden’s strategy distinguishes itself internationally is because everyone else is wrong!”
By early April it was clear that Sweden was in the midst of both a public health emergency and an economic crisis. In addition to the stress in Stockholm hospitals, manufacturing industry was extremely pessimistic and the government was forced to respond with repeated measures to keep firms and individuals afloat.
2nd Week of April
The week leading up to Easter saw a peak in the pandemic. At this point around 100 people were dying each day, mainly in Stockholm. This brought further changes. Prime Minister Löfven acknowledged that Sweden was underprepared for corona, and he said that several previous governments (including his) bore responsibility for this. He told people to stay home and not to travel over Easter, advice which most Swedes followed. From around this point, the government’s political fortunes began to lift, with Swedes particularly happy with Löfven and the Social Democrats.
However, dissent about the policies was still strong within Sweden’s medical community. 22 researchers openly protested at the strategies employed, which received significant international media attention.
3rd Week of April
The combination of domestic discontent with the Public Health Authority’s (FHM) disease management and international alarm over Sweden’s actions forced the Swedish government to act. Both Löfven and Ann Linde came out forcefully in support of FHM’s strategy, and Sweden’s epidemiologists were increasingly in international media defending their approach. Sweden’s US Ambassador, Karin Olofsdotter, was also busy in America explaining its approach.
The economics were also becoming clearer. On a positive note, the auto industry was beginning to reopen. Also, it was apparent that Sweden’s domestic demand was holding up a bit better than many other countries – the result of the more flexible social isolation policies. But that was the best of it, as it was obvious that there was not going to be any short term fix to the pandemic. The global economy was going to take a long time to recover, which would be very bad for Sweden’s exports, and consequently jobs and the economy generally. SEB forecast that Sweden’s GDP would fall 13% in 2Q, and would be down 7% over the year. The Finance Minister, Magdalena Andersson (S), presented the 2020 Spring budget to the Riksdag, with new measures totalling over SEK 100 billion.
4th Week of April
By this point, the peak of the crisis had apparently passed in Stockholm. Hospitals were seeing fewer intensive care patients. Johan Giesecke declared that the strategy was working, and the community had started to relax a little. In addition, the weather was getting warmer, which provoked some to head out to bars and restaurants. This provoked a backlash, with the community clearly concerned and a number of bars were forced shut. Löfven went back on TV to tell Swedes that the crisis was not close to over.
End of April
With April drawing to a close the initial phase of the corona crisis looked to be contained, albeit with very considerable costs. Sweden had had over 2000 deaths, but some in the international community, including President Trump and the WHO were beginning to acknowledge the Swedish model. Another positive was the economy, which was still seeing some support, at least in terms of domestic spending and jobs.
The May edition of the Monthly Policy Review and The Finland Monthly Brief
Naturally, the Corona theme is heavily covered in our May Monthly Policy Review. The crisis has had a devastating effect on many European countries, which has amplified the demands being placed on the EU budgetary process. Many EU countries are hoping the EU will provide the finance that they need to develop or to recover from corona, or in some cases, for both. They are looking to the EUs wealthier countries for assistance. Sweden is cool to this request. It sees itself as a prudent country which stocks its barns in advance of each winter, and expects other countries to do the same. It has particular issues with countries who display undemocratic tendencies and also ask for money. This is the subject of our first story, Not Just Frugal. Frustrated Too. In our second story, Democracy, Global Leadership, and Swedish Foreign Policy in the Covid-19 Era, we look at Sweden’s new diplomacy project, seeking to advance democratisation agenda in an age of demagogues. Mundus explores why Sweden is pushing this now, and at how credible the ambition is. Our final story, Project: Sweden 2.0 begins with the current state of the economy (not good), and investigates how Swedish leaders from across both business and politics are trying to avoid letting the crisis go to waste. Is this the opportunity that they had been waiting for to reboot society to a new, sustainable future?
The April edition of the Finland Monthly Brief looks at how Finland is trying to cope with the economic impact of Corona, its most pressing short term need. But experienced Finland watchers know that the country faces a similarly large longer-term challenge – its demographics. Finland breaks records in the rank of oldest populations in the world. The worrying phenomenon is a threat to both the welfare state and competitiveness of the country. Our third story looks at political ideologies in Finland. Once this was just a question of socialism vs capitalism, but now it has become more fragmented, with liberal globalists vs conservative nationalists.