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Sweden's Controversial Decision To Not Lock Down The Country


Why has Sweden chosen such a different way to fight the pandemic? Unlike much of the world, Sweden has avoided a mandatory lockdown. It's sticking with that approach even though Sweden now has a higher number of COVID-19 cases and deaths than its immediate neighbors. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money look into why Sweden has chosen to keep businesses and schools open.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: 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.

OSCAR TORNELL: It's a proper nightclub. We play everything from, you know, hip-hop to Swedish oldies to techno to house.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Oscar Tornell is the manager of Soap Bar in Stockholm, Sweden. Oscar says they are letting in way fewer people, and they're asking people to stay at least 3 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: It's a struggle. It's a pretty funny struggle in this mayhem of the world right now.

VANEK SMITH: 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.

ANDERS TEGNELL: Basically because the tradition was not to do that - to work on a voluntary basis instead.

VANEK 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.

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 3 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.

VANEK SMITH: Anders says the decision not to lock Sweden down was a public health decision.

GARCIA: Anders points to a study from the Imperial College in London. And that study found that a long-term lockdown was not necessarily the best decision for public health.

VANEK SMITH: Another recent study from Harvard School of Public Health 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 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.

TEGNELL: Of course we're wondering if this is the right thing to do. I think we are 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.

VANEK 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. 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, maybe even years if we had to.

VANEK 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.

Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.

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