Mundus Brief: March 2020 in review

The Mundus Brief is your chance to read a summary of what happened in Sweden last month and our chance to let you know what we’ve been looking into in our publications. We try to keep the Mundus Brief brief and entertaining; a counterbalance to our more serious news and analysis. We hope you find it an interesting read!  /The Mundus Team

Our March round-up

“The reason Sweden’s strategy distinguishes itself internationally is because everyone else is wrong” – Johan Gisecke – Swedish epidemiologist

The devastation caused by the Corona Crisis is its best known feature, but equally amazing is how rapidly it has transformed the world, and Sweden with it.

To recap. Even at the end of February, the coronavirus and the disease it causes – covid-19, had barely touched Sweden. Although the first case was recorded in January, by early March, Sweden has still only had a dozen recorded cases. In the words of Anders Tegnell, State Epidemiologist, it was “an imported illness and travel is driving the spread”. His words were prescient, even if he didn’t seem to take them all the way to their logical conclusion, as March 2 marked the end of the Stockholm Sportlov (or winter sport’s week). Thousands of Stockholmers returned from skiing holidays in the Italian Alps, and with them they brought the coronavirus.

1st Week of March
Incredibly as it now seems, March began with airlines operating near full throttle, transporting passengers and the virus in unrestricted fashion across the globe. But, by the end of the first week flights to Iran and Italy were being wound back. And the number of corona cases in Sweden had risen to around 100.

Another marker of that time– before corona, was that there was still room in politics and the news cycle for other stories. The case of Gui Minhai was very much in the news, alongside growing tensions between the US and China. There was still space for geopolitics, with China demanding an apology for Swedish satire, and for the EU and Turkey to be sparring over the fate of Syrian refugees, with tensions at the EU border in Greece. And there was even time for business to devote its attention to better climate change policies. That was then. 

2nd Week of March
On March 9, Sweden had recorded 203 cases – over half of them being in Stockholm. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised against non-essential travel to areas in northern Italy. On March 11, Sweden recorded its first death, with over 500 corona cases nationwide. The first social restrictions began in Sweden, with gatherings of more than 500 people banned.

Still, even in the second week of March, business and politics was still trying to progress its chosen agendas. Jimmy Åkesson was deported from Turkey, where he was making a political point about refugees. Moderate Party Leader, Ulf Kristersson and his Christian Democratic counterpart, Ebba Busch, announced that they would tour Sweden, trying to force the case to bring down the Löfven government. Also that week, Sweden’s Climate Policy Council reported on the Löfven Government’s Climate Act – giving it a failed grade, and the Preem oil refinery in Gothenburg was still trying to progress its case to expand, and emit more CO2.

But, on March 12, the Stockholm Stock Exchange plummeted 11%, signalling that Sweden, like the rest of the world suddenly needed to face a frightening future dominated by the coronavirus.

3rd Week of March
By the beginning of the third week, events were moving extremely quickly. Denmark closed its border with Sweden, blocking the land route for Swedish travellers to Europe. Sweden recorded its 10th death as a result of covid-19.

Cinemas were shut across Sweden. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised against all non-essential international travel – anywhere. Stockholm was declared a high-risk zone, where epidemiologists now said it was plausible for person to person transmission to occur. Stockholmers were requested not to travel to other parts of Sweden, in order not to spread the infection.

And with the economy beginning to drop away visibly, the Finance Minister announced a SEK 300 billion package to support business. The Riksbank announced a parallel financial program worth SEK 500 billion to be delivered by Sweden’s banks. That such a program was required was almost undisputed. In this week, SAS announced that it was standing down 10,000 of its staff. Volvo AB and Electrolux declared profit warnings. And with banks being demanded not to distribute dividends to their shareholders, SEB postponed its AGM.

On March 22, the Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven (S), made a highly unusual address to the nation. His heavy tone conveyed the seriousness with which he and his administration were taking matters and stressed the need for Swedes to take personal responsibility for themselves, for each other and for the country in the difficult times ahead.

4th Week of March
By March 24, Sweden had incurred 33 deaths, but the rate was starting to rise faster. The public health system began to raise concerns about the availability of protective clothing and other equipment.

It was at about this time that the world began to take notice of Sweden’s different approach – with guidelines for social distancing, rather than laws forcing a lockdown. The limit on any gathering was reduced from 500 to 50. Restaurants and bars were only allowed to provide table service.  

Meanwhile, Sweden’s economy had had the brakes applied. Sweden’s auto industry was shutdown, and its banks and other large corporates were deferring their dividends. The Stockholm Chamber of Commerce was forecasting that 800,000 jobs were now at risk.

But as the society and economy came screeching to a halt, this stirred new spirits within Swedish politics. The truism that a week is a long time in politics was highlighted by the newfound spirit of cooperation between Sweden’s political parties, all seeking to pull in the same direction – keeping Sweden afloat. Annie Lööf (C) wrote an opinion piece describing the Moderates as responsible, and calling for them to be included in policy negotiations (Kristersson’s national tour to bring down the government had been quietly cancelled). Stefan Löfven’s opinion ratings skyrocketed up.

Epilogue – early April

Source: Financial Times

Sweden’s corona death toll stands at 591 at the time of publishing, having leapt by almost 200 persons in the past 48 hours. The epidemiologists say that the worst few weeks lie just ahead, meaning we shall soon see just how bad the pandemic will be here.  

Nonetheless, the same epidemiologists are maintaining their swagger. These experts in infectious disease have been given a very large amount of responsibility in guiding Sweden through the crisis. They appear confident in their own judgement, unafraid to make life and death decisions about what parts of society to close, and what to leave running. As Johan Gisecke, a former State Epidemiologist, who receives a lot of attention from the press put it, the reason why Sweden stands out from the rest of the world, is that the rest of the world is wrong.

Another reason that Sweden stands out is that as a nation, Sweden works differently. The experts role is carefully protected by the constitution, making it hard for the executive government to take over. Sweden is also distinctive in terms of its culture – with very high levels of public trust in government and in fellow citizens. These are the issues that we explore in depth in the April edition of the Monthly Policy Review.

Our second story in the April Monthly Policy Review looks at the Artic. With the forces at play shifting from science and nature preservation, to resource exploitation, trade routes and superpower rivalry between the USA, Russia and China, what can Sweden do to keep influence.

The final story, “Sweden’s Climate Policy – Own Goal” looks at the report published in March by Sweden’s independent Climate Policy Council, which reviewed Sweden’s Climate Action Plan. The scorecard was bleak for the government, with one expert describing the situation thus – “worse grades than this can hardly be obtained”. Mundus ponders what could have happened that the Löfven government created events that led to such a poor outcome, and speculates on what might happen next.

➢  Useful links on covid-19