As the architect of Sweden’s controversial COVID-19 strategy, Anders Tegnell is a scientist with security.
Sweden’s chief epidemiologist routinely walks the short distance through Stockholm’s streets from his office to the Health Ministry Press Centre, flanked by two no-nonsense men with earpieces.
He’s become a deeply polarising figure in the global debate on how best to combat coronavirus.
Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell’s plan has been likened to a herd-immunity strategy — a charge he denies.(Foreign Correspondent)
Under his guidance, Sweden was the only EU country not to impose tough, extensive, mandatory lockdowns. As the country’s death toll rises, Tegnell faces a growing chorus of international condemnation and recently, a few death threats.
But, this being Sweden, a proudly egalitarian society, he’s still on the street and accessible to foe and friend alike. “Good work, gang!” yells a supporter as she whizzes past Team Tegnell on her bicycle.
Anders Tegnell is not bowing to pressure. He still believes tough, short-term lockdowns are not the way to beat COVID-19, and that his strategy of keeping society largely open and the economy running will be proven right in the long term.
The man with the plan
Tegnell typifies Swedes’ self-image as low-key, no-nonsense types. Fielding questions from journalists in the street, he doesn’t even break his stride.
Journalist: A fair amount of pressure in your life these days?
Tegnell: Ah. Not that bad.
Journalist: You’re one of Sweden’s most famous men?
Tegnell: It will pass.
Journalist: Isn’t there something you like about celebrity?
Tegnell: Not at all — I prefer to do my work.
This is not his first high-pressure assignment. Tegnell cut his epidemiological teeth during a deadly Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s.
As he fronts up to face the world’s cameras, he calmly takes all questions, explaining why Sweden’s pandemic plan is still working despite a COVID death toll that now rises beyond 5,000.
Tegnell has become a national celebrity, not just for Swedes but among many around the world who have questioned mandatory lockdown measures.(Foreign Correspondent)
“Do you think in retrospect now that actually trying to stop the disease — immediately — would have been a wiser solution,” he’s asked, “or do you still believe this long term strategy is the way to go?”
“We basically still think that this is the right strategy for Sweden,” Tegnell replies.
“This is a bit like having an ocean liner and trying to steer it with a lag of three or four weeks. I think we are too early to both say Sweden was right or anybody else was right.”
It’s increasingly a tough message to sell, particularly when other Nordic countries that went into lockdown are now seeing infection rates decline. Controls are being relaxed and their regional borders are reopening — except to Sweden.
The Tegnell approach
When it comes to COVID-19, Sweden has been doing it differently. There have been no “go-hard, go-early” lockdowns; no chaos, no dramatic TV images of over-crowded intensive care hospital wards.
Tegnell’s high-risk strategy centres on not doing very much at all, imposing a kind of “lockdown lite”, relying on a national culture of individual responsibility, where social distancing and working from home are voluntary.
Stockholm school students recently celebrated their high school graduation. Gatherings of more than 50 are banned.(Reuters: Jessica Gow)
Mandatory closures have been few, largely limited to high schools, universities and retirement homes, while public gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned.
The rest has been largely left to the discretion of individual Swedes. Sweden’s Government says it’s taking a long-term strategy in combatting COVID-19, intended to keep society — and the economy — running.
But the casualty list of the Swedish Model is growing. More than 65,000 people have been infected with COVID-19.
Unlike Sweden, the other Nordic countries swiftly imposed tough mandatory lockdowns. Today, the Swedes have double the number of confirmed cases as Denmark, Norway and Finland combined.
And the fatality rate is even worse — more than 5,200 have died from a population of just 10 million. That’s five times the combined total of the other Nordic nations.
Tegnell admits there have been failures. One of the relatively few government directives was to lock down aged care facilities. He concedes the order came too late and casualties have been high — of the 5,000 deaths, 88 per cent have been people aged over 70, many of them in retirement homes.
Exactly how many elderly Swedes have died of COVID-19 has been difficult to determine. During the first couple of months of the crisis, there was a lack of comprehensive testing making it hard to know the cause of death.
“We are doing a lot of things now and we see that the number of cases in those facilities is slowly falling,” says Tegnell, “so we believe that even that can be rectified and our strategy will be even more sustainable.”
To date, around 7 per cent of Sweden’s population has been infected and developed COVID-19 antibodies, well short of the so-called “herd immunity” rate of at least 70 per cent, where so many people in the community become infected that the virus is theoretically controlled.
Swedish public health experts, critical of the Tegnell plan, say herd immunity was always the implied cornerstone of the national strategy. But Tegnell denies this was ever his goal.
He says his strategy has been misunderstood and championed by opponents of lockdowns who support a herd-immunity solution. As a result, he’s getting an international pummelling.
“Sometimes I feel like a personal punchbag. But that’s OK, I can live with that.”
Say it with ink Stockholm tattoo artist Zashay Tastas is among Anders Tegnell’s legion of fans in Sweden for his coronavirus response plan.(Foreign Correspondent)
Tegnell has become an unlikely Swedish hero. His regular briefings have brought him national fame and huge popularity. A rapper has sung his praises; his image adorns t-shirts and poster art.
Stockholm tattoo artist Zashay Tastas is a big fan. Tegnell, he says, radiates a kind of dad-like Swedish cool.
“He’s kind of like the typical Swede,” says Zashay, as he powers up the ink gun and gets to work on a client.
“He’s calm — he has big-dick calmness over him — and he’s very competent, not braggy about it.”
The customer in the chair is mining-equipment salesman Gustav Agerblad, and he’s getting some more work done to the inked Tegnell portrait that now adorns his arm.
Gustav Angerblad has been so impressed with Anders Tegnell’s pandemic response he’s had his face inked onto his arm.(Foreign Correspondent)
“I got it ’cause Anders Tegnell has been doing a really good job,” says Gustav.
“When I watch the news and he’s standing there, I feel that we are in good hands. Before this crisis, he was like nobody for the Swedish people. Now he’s a rock star.”
Opinion polls confirm it’s a sentiment shared by many Swedes. Tegnell’s popularity has dipped slightly in recent weeks but he still enjoys majority support. Most don’t want a tattoo, but they appreciate the Tegnell philosophy: that Swedes can be trusted to do the right thing.
“I want to have the free will of my own and I really put the high price on that,” says Gustav.
“To have a choice to go to the store when I want; to have a choice to work.”
And there’s not much empathy in the tattoo parlour for the collateral damage of the Swedish Model — the growing list of casualties.
“Yeah, bad luck I guess,” Gustav says.
“Sorry that sounds harsh, but I mean I would rather have it like we have in Sweden than having it like in Poland, or in China, or in Lombardy in Italy, where they have closed down societies almost.”
A Swedish Model family
Late Spring in Stockholm and the streets and parks are full of Swedes basking in the sunshine.
Despite the social-distancing signs on paths, bus stops and cafe walls, the freedoms of the pre-COVID world never really went away here. The bars and restaurants never closed and the gyms remain open.
For a few days in June, Sweden had one of the world’s highest per capita death rates. With a few exceptions, the country has remained mostly open during the pandemic.(Reuters: Anders Wiklund)
For Stockholm couple Mina and Mathias, ensuring they and their three young children stay safe means following the Tegnell plan, with its emphasis on personal responsibility.
“I think it worked really well in the beginning when COVID came,” says Mina.
Mina has already had COVID-19 and Mathias suspects he may also have been infected. But Sweden has offered very little community testing so getting a diagnosis has been difficult.(Foreign Correspondent)
“People planned their grocery shopping better. I would think there weren’t as many people at the shops.
“I think it’s good that we have a more open, relaxed attitude. I don’t believe in shutting down societies but feel safe in the Swedish Model still.”
Mina works as an assistant director of an aged care facility and has just recovered from COVID. To protect patients and staff, she self-isolated at home when her symptoms first appeared.
Mina is relieved to have had only a mild case. Her partner Mathias also suspects he’s had COVID, but confirming a diagnosis was difficult.
“I don’t know if I’ve had it, but I think so,” says Mathias.
“You live close to each other in a family and I’ve had a cold and a bit of a sore throat … nothing serious but that may have been a very mild version of corona. You hope so but you don’t know.”
Until recently, Sweden did very little community COVID testing. With a nationwide shortage of kits, testing was mainly reserved for the very sick who’d been hospitalised, or those in high-risk jobs like Mina.
Stockholm couple Mina and Mathias say compliance with the Tegnell plan was strong to begin with but has been fading with the onset of the Swedish summer.(Foreign Correspondent)
Despite much of Sweden staying open for business during the pandemic, GDP is predicted to fall by 7 per cent this year. It’s a better forecast than the UK or Italy can expect, but really no better than Sweden’s Nordic neighbours who did impose tough, early lockdowns.
Yet Mina believes the national economy would have taken a bigger hit without the Swedish Model.
“Of course there are individuals who have been affected more severely in Sweden, who have actually lost their jobs,” she says.
“But I think that Sweden will gain its feet faster than many other countries.”
Stockholm’s forgotten people
In a neat cemetery in Stockholm’s northern suburbs, it’s easy to spot the recent COVID graves. The green manicured lawns are ruptured by mounds of fresh earth, covered in wilting flowers and treasured mementos of lives extinguished.
Mirrey Gourie’s father Josef died of COVID-19 the day before his 64th birthday.(Foreign Correspondent)
It’s here that a young woman, Mirrey Gourie, comes every day to visit the resting place of her father Josef, who died of coronavirus the day before his 64th birthday.
“I usually walk here in the morning, early, because then there are less people here … then I arrive, visit my dad of course and think, ‘How could this have happened?'” she says.
Mirrey believes her father would still be alive if the Swedish Government had moved more quickly to ban large gatherings during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.(Foreign Correspondent)
Fit and active, Josef was goalkeeper on the national soccer team of his native Syria before he emigrated to Sweden in 1990 with his wife and three children. When the pandemic struck, Mirrey says he was carefully following the recommendations issued by Tegnell and his team.
“Dad only moved between his home, his work and the church. The 15th of March he was at church and we found out he became sick after that ceremony,” she recalls.
Just days later, the Government recommended the maximum number for a gathering be reduced from 500 to 50. But it was too late for Josef.
Mirrey believes had those measures been brought in sooner, her father would still be alive.
Scattered across the cemetery are other lonely figures, paying their respects, attempting to process the tragedy that’s consumed their lives.
“Here we see really new graves and the majority have died from COVID 19,” she says. “I think this is the proof about what really is happening in our society in Sweden.”
During the past decade there’s been a dramatic shift in Sweden’s demographic. A quarter of the population now has a migrant background. The predominately migrant area here in Stockholm’s north is one of the worst-hit in Sweden, with COVID infection rates up to three times higher than the greater Stockholm region.
Mirrey’s family live in the suburbs of northern Stockholm, a migrant area with infection rates up to three times higher than the rest of Stockholm.(Foreign Correspondent)
Writer and activist Nuri Kino is drawing attention to the devastating effects of the pandemic on foreign-born Swedes, particularly in his own community of Assyrian Christians.
Unlike Nordic Swedes, who largely live in small family groups or alone, migrant households often comprise three generations under one roof.
Nuri blames the health authorities for misunderstanding the different social structures of migrant communities and for failing to effectively warn of the dangers.
Activist and author Nuri Kino says Swedish authorities failed to understand migrant communities.(Foreign Correspondent)
“The information that came to immigrant towns, districts or areas, was delayed, confusing and even in wrong languages,” Nuri says.
“We socialise differently, the culture is different to the Swedish ethnic culture when it comes to social life. It’s another of the reasons why we were more affected by the coronavirus, unfortunately.”
In stark contrast to confident, bustling downtown Stockholm, the streets in Nuri’s old neighbourhood are now eerily quiet. People keep their distance and turn away as they see him approach.
“If I come here, I always meet relatives, friends, children of friends. People have become aware of the situation and are more cautious,” he says.
“Everyone here more or less knows someone who has passed away.”
Critics of the plan
On first impressions, Anders Tegnell and Stefan Hanson seem to have a lot in common. Both are esteemed Swedish health scientists, in late middle age, who display a no-nonsense approach in getting on with their work.
But when it comes to the Swedish Model, they are diametrically opposed.
Stefan Hanson was among a group of leading doctors, virologists and researchers who called for the Swedish Model to be replaced by a “go hard, go early” strategy.(Foreign Correspondent)
Hanson, an infectious disease expert, was among a group of 22 leading doctors, virologists and researchers who called for the Swedish Model to be replaced by the Go Hard, Go Early approach of other Nordic countries.
“The problem is that I don’t see any science — there is no scientific background to this strategy,” Hanson says.
“I woke up in the night because I was thinking, ‘This is terrible, people are dying and we are letting the infection spread.’
“From the very start they didn’t believe it was going to become an epidemic in Sweden so they didn’t take any measures to be prepared for an epidemic. The attitude is taking things too lightly and not to cause panic.”
Hanson has turned his protest into action. In a suburban Stockholm shopping centre in a migrant neighbourhood, Hanson and his team have set up a clinic in an open space next to the first-floor escalators.
A nurse wearing a face shield and full protective gear sets up a table and unpacks equipment. The clinic offers an immediate test for COVID-19 antibodies, confirming if patients have already caught the virus.
Stefan Hanson runs a coronavirus testing desk in a Stockholm shopping centre with kits donated by a local university.(Foreign Correspondent)
For months, the Government did very little community testing, so Hanson started collaborating with a local university that provides the small kits that analyse blood samples while people wait.
A small crowd soon gathers, all quietly waiting their turn. In the eagerness to get tested, social distancing is forgotten.
“Positive!” declares Hanson to a young Somali man. “I knew it!” says the clearly relieved Somali, “That’s why I spent about a month in my room.” He thanks the team then promptly walks out of the shopping centre
“So the last gentleman — a Somali gentleman — he had symptoms three months ago and he has weak positivity,” Hanson says, watching his test subject disappear.
About 8 per cent of those tested in the shopping centre returned positive results.(Foreign Correspondent)
There’s no sense of drama nor heightened precautions around those who test positive. The lucky few who manage to get tested are relieved.
“People just want to know … we come here and they just show up. We are just trying to do this to be able to show that what the Government is doing is not sufficient. They have to do more.”
Hanson says more testing will mean more contact tracing due to laws making it obligatory for authorities to follow up confirmed cases.
Today, there are just 24 kits and all too soon, the team starts to turn people away.
“That was 24 approved and three positives out of 24, so some 8 or 9 per cent [infection rate],” Hanson notes.
“We could test everybody here, for sure, we could test the whole day.”
Swedish authorities are now, belatedly ramping up a national COVID-19 testing campaign, but for Stefan Hanson, it’s too little, too late.
As he pulls off his face shield and packs up, Hanson’s stoic facade slips just for a moment, in bitter reflection.
“Herd immunity is very far … and so many dead. The Government is doing nothing, just standing there and doing nothing.”
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s ‘The Swedish Model’ tonight at 8pm on ABC TV and iview, and streaming live on Facebook and YouTube.