Sweden’s coronavirus catastrophe: a failure of neo-liberalism, accountability and capitalism

Map of the COVID-19 outbreak in Sweden by 26 March (Wikimedia/CC)

Over five hundred people in Sweden have now died from COVID-19, more than in Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, combined. Far too late, the Swedish government is slowly planning to implement lockdown of the kind in place in other Nordic countries for weeks. The Swedish health care system is becoming overwhelmed. Doctors in Stockholm have begun denying treatment to elderly coronavirus victims.

Sweden’s neighbors and the world have looked on in horror at the Swedish government’s negligent response to the coronavirus pandemic. This negligence is a logical consequence of Sweden’s political development over the past thirty years.

The immediate cause of the response is a failure of accountability. Thus far, the Swedish parliament has deferred decision-making about the response to the Folkhälsomyndigheten or Public Health Agency of Sweden, and particularly to state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. Much of the Swedish public has been swayed to support Tegnell’s advice but Tegnell has shown himself to be someone happy to bend facts to fit his own theories.

In 2007 in a speech to the Swedish Academy of Military Sciences, Tegnell advanced the heterodox claim: “Historically, [isolation] has almost never worked…isolation is not a method that would work in today’s society.”


Tegnell has twisted every new development into a reason to stick to his laissez-faire approach. When Sweden had fewer COVID cases than Norway or Denmark, he called it proof a strong response was unnecessary. When infections surged in Sweden – outnumbering the rest of Scandinavia combined – it was proof that an extensive lockdown was unsustainable. When there were no cases whose origin was not known, it was evidence that strong restrictions were an overreaction. Now that such cases are widespread, for Tegnell, it is too late to respond.

Of course, the advice of public health experts should be respected. The Swedish state’s horrific mistake has been to put its respect into a single person. An op-ed by 14 Swedish scientists, and a petition signed by thousands of scientists and doctors, have demanded a public response similar to those in Finland and Denmark.

Amazingly the state’s abdication of responsibility has been hailed as a triumph from some corners of Swedish politics. Constitutionally Sweden’s public health institutions are supposed to be free from ministerial oversight: a common accusation from Swedish liberals and conservatives is that a more robust response would be “ministerial rule,” an unfair politicization of the crisis.

Swedish economist, Fredrik Erixon, writing in conservative UK magazine, The Spectator, went so far as to reject science and public health as motives. “This Swedish exceptionalism is about principle, not epidemiology….Sweden simply made the call to take measures that don’t destroy the free society.” To not respond recklessly, according to Erixon, is equivalent to Viktor Orban’s establishing a dictatorship in Hungary. (Erixon, meanwhile, lives as an expat in Belgium, where he benefits from that country’s three-week-old lockdown.)

Neo-liberal commentators have not, meanwhile, objected to the government’s proposal to circumvent the Rijksdag (parliament) and rule by decree. That proposal was withdrawn only after objections from the Left Party and from the petty-bourgeois, traditionally conservative, Moderate Party.

In reality, nothing is more political than the survival of the working class–and how free is someone bound to a respirator? The Swedish political center’s failure to implement a strong response and to make testing widely available deprives workers of basic security. The Swedish government argues it is trusting its citizens rather than imposing its will on them.

Effect on workers

But what freedom of choice to self-isolate do working class Swedish residents have if their employers demand they come to work? How can Swedish parents protect their own families and others if the state keeps schools open? People in Sweden are forced to choose between the risk of a horrific, life-threatening infection and the certainty of losing their livelihoods, even their homes. The working class can be trusted to act with “common sense” – when the fetters of capital are lifted.

The popular image of Sweden in much of the world is of a strong social democracy. The Swedish welfare state was built up over decades as a series of concessions from the Swedish ruling class to prevent a revolution. With the weakening of Swedish unions and the surrender of the SAP – the Swedish Social Democratic Party – that ruling class has withdrawn those concessions, in turn.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Swedish government started selling off stockpiles of medical and health supplies; in 2009 it privatized its pharmaceutical industry and private health care is rapidly on the rise, pushed by the Swedish state. Even abandoning elderly patients to die, while it is disgusting, is not surprising. As far back as 2014, liberal think-tank leader, Karin Svanborg-Sjövall, warned that privatization of health care in Stockholm had led to “older or chronically ill patients being crowded out by healthier patients in a system that strongly incentivises quick access to care.”

The Swedish bourgeoisie’s almost religious commitment to the free market and the minimal state, the erosion of health security, the breakdown of working class strength: all contributed to an atmosphere where the sacrifice of the elderly and the burdening of individuals with responsibility for the problems of all of society have become acceptable.

Protect workers

Anders Tegnell denies he is following a callous “herd immunity” plan like the one considered by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (now seriously ill with the virus). But he also does not deny that the outcome in Sweden will be similar to that in the UK if his own plan continues. For working people, pretty intentions mean little. The Swedish government should immediately act to protect its workers by closing businesses, requiring isolation and providing full housing, food, and income support; the longer it delays, the greater the already-staggering human cost will be.

But the working class can, in the long run, no more rely on bosses’ representatives any more than it can on the advice of lone epidemiologists. The only way to build a society resistant to plagues, able to prepare and respond decisively to disasters, is to sweep away the capitalist order and replace it with a world without profit or hoarding of wealth.

Swedish workers must build a mass party of the working class, and arm that party with a socialist program to inoculate themselves against the epidemic disease of capitalism.

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