Sweden has adopted a far less radical set of policies in reaction to COVID-19 than most other European states. Many other European states are in "lock-down", with severe restrictions on people's free movement, with people being advised to only leave their homes for food/medicine. In Sweden, by contrast, people are largely carrying on with their normal lives.

While every other country in Europe has been ordered into ever more stringent coronavirus lockdown, Sweden has remained the exception. Schools for pupils up to 16 years, kindergartens, bars, restaurants, ski resorts, sports clubs, hairdressers: all remain open, weeks after everything closed down in next door Denmark and Norway.

As the rest of Europe lives under lockdown, Sweden keeps calm and carries on - The Guardian, March 28, 2020

What social and political factors underlie this decision, and why is it so dramatically different from the response of other European countries?

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    Google image search for "swedish bus stop" is a partial answer...
    – pipe
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 8:31
  • 1
    Can you clarify what more you are looking for than the answers the article you linked already gives (which are fairly detailed)? Or why you think those answers are inadequate? It seems to me you already have your answer, and indeed the currently top voted answer quotes from the same source as your article.
    – JBentley
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 13:44
  • @JBentley that article link and quote was added to the question by an editor, not the OP.
    – CDJB
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 18:22
  • The large ski resorts in the southern 2/3d of Sweden is closed now. The resorts alongs Malmbanan is open but : most visitors there is from the northern part of Sweden (from Malmö for example: the distance to Riksgränsen is the same as if you instead headed to Neapel) while from Stockholm by car that is 1300 km. Commented Apr 10, 2020 at 15:30
  • The Regeringen is somewhat irritated on a number of restaurants in Stockholm which hasn't headed to the demands on how to separate customers so Länsstyrelsen will today do a fair number of inspections which could result in some closures. Commented Apr 10, 2020 at 15:34

3 Answers 3


The reason for Sweden's rather hands-off approach compared to other European countries was summed up rather well by lead epidemiologist of the Public Health Agency of Sweden, Anders Tegnell, who said in an interview with CNBC:

My view is that basically all European countries are trying to do the same thing — we’re trying to slow down the spread as much as possible to keep healthcare and society working ... and we have shown some different methods to slow down the spread, [...] Sweden has gone mostly for voluntary measures because that’s how we’re used to working, and we have a long tradition that it works rather well.

This tradition of 'laissez-faire-ism' that Tegnell talks about was explored by Johan Norberg in his 2013 essay How Laissez-Faire Made Sweden Rich. This is quite long but well worth a read. Notably, Norberg argues that rather than Sweden's economic and social successes being a result of the SAP "managing to tax, spend, and regulate Sweden into a more equitable distribution of wealth—without hurting its productive capacity", Sweden's greatest successes both economically and socially "took place when Sweden had a laissez-faire economy".

Sweden's approach to the current pandemic, then, would seem to be influenced by the political traditions of its past. I should note that although Tegnell is hopeful that the current strategy will be successful, he doesn't rule out the implementation of more stringent measures should the data suggest that the laissez-faire tactics are not working.

As far as social factors that have influenced Sweden's response go, one such factor is how sparsely spread its population is. This article from Our World in Data notes how Sweden consistently ranks near the top of metrics related to single-occupant households, and the country also ranks 50th out of 54th for Population Density amongst other European countries.

It is likely that another factor has been the reluctance of the government to negatively affect the economy more than is required. For example, although taking a hands-off approach with regard to restricting personal liberties, it has taken a far more active role in ensuring the continued functioning of business, and on March 27th announced that it will guarantee 70% of bank loans provided to companies that are experiencing financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic.

In conclusion, Sweden's response so far seems to be a combination of the reluctance of Swedes to accept restrictions on personal liberty - note the outcry by opposition parties when a proposal to rule by decree was announced, a tradition of past laissez-faire approaches, and distinct social factors that will potentially help provide a natural defence against the virus.

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    Is Swedish population density actually a measurement used by the government? Since Sweden has one of the highest urbanization rates in the world (excluding smaller city states), population density as a metric might be a useless indicator.Norrland (~60% of Swedens territory) being nearly devoid of people doesn't mean there is no contact between people in an urban setting.
    – R.K.
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 8:40
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    @R.K. while you make a fair point that the statistics are somewhat skewed by the north, these things are relative even within the more urban south - Stockholm has half as many people/sq.km as NYC, and four times fewer than Paris.
    – CDJB
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 8:50
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    @R.K. As somebody living in a large Swedish city, I can attest that even "metropoles" by Swedish standards have a very low concentration of people even at normal operation. Four people at a bus stop is a crowd around here :)
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 9:52
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    As a sidenote to this excellent answer, the Swedish economy is still heavily impacted by the lockdowns in neighbouring countries. In the modern world, even if Sweden wouldn't do anything at all, the fact that Norway, Denmark, and Germany basically closed shop still sends our economy into a downward spiral.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 9:56
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    Great answer. I would also point out the mutual trust between the population and institutions. Many countries try to implement soft-policies first, but when French institutions said "Please don't go out" people went out and crowded pubs to the rally cry of "I'm not afraid" whereas most Swedes actually follow the guidelines, which allows for a longer period of soft-policies. Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 7:22

This Forbes article sheds some light upon the Sweden's strange response to COVID-19:

  1. There seems to be no agreed action plan:

    The crux of the argument put forth by Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s Chief Epidemiologist, and other leaders is essentially that nobody really knows what approach works best for a virus like this, and that the difference in outcomes between draconian lockdowns and a more relaxed approach may not be all that different in the end.

  2. Until hospitals are overrun, a lockdown is considered more costly than the alternative:

    As long as Swedish hospitals aren’t overrun, they say, there’s no reason to panic. They seem to be accepting that the virus will make its way through a certain portion of the population. “Flattening the curve” is important, yes, but taking more extreme measures to slow down its spread is not worth the pain and complications it would cause, at least for the moment.

Referring to the social/cultural factors, an interesting fact is that Sweden has a very low proportion of young people living with their parents and this, at least in theory, should help not spread the infection to the most vulnerable. As long as younger persons obey the social distancing advice the mortality rate should be lower.

Side note: it seems that Scandinavians (along with some of the people in Eastern Europe) have a bigger chance of developing a milder version of the disease due to genetics reasons. This helps with not overcrowding the hospitals, since less people require hospitalization.

  • Where they really dropped the ball was the little action they took to stop the spread at retiring homes. Where more than half of all deaths originated. Commented May 20, 2020 at 23:59

The two existing answers by CDJB and Alexei are great but there are some important points missing:

Population density

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(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
With the exception of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, Sweden is only sparsely populated. Sparsely populated areas do not have many places that are naturally crowded (especially now that events with more than 50 persons are not allowed). In sparsely populated areas most people will move in their car (alone or with their family) as opposed to public transportation. Due to the lower number of random contacts, it is easier to trace infection chains in sparsely populated areas.

Long-term sustainability
Fighting Covid-19 is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Lock-downs are a sprint measure. As of today, the official infection rate in Spain is at 0.3% of the population. Even accounting for a larger number of unknown cases, this will result in a low single-digit percentage. This means that basically all people are still susceptible to infections.
An infection however will only end when herd immunity is reached and at the current rate this will take years. Herd immunity can be created artificially by vaccination but this will take a long time (even the most optimistic scenarios expect more than 6 months). A hard lock-down like in Spain, Italy or France is not sustainable for more than a few weeks before everything breaks down. The Swedish way is more sustainable in the long run.

Only few people are actually at risk
For most people, symptoms are soft or they are even asymptomatic. If you manage to separate high-risk groups or at least minimize their exposure, life can continue for the remaining population. If you look at infection rates all over the world, one can make a solid assumption that in any country >95% of the population are not infected at all. There is a trade-off to make between trying to protect a few high-risk people and restricting the lives of everyone else.
This is a difficult decision to make and most countries so far try to err on the safe side. Trading potential lives against convenience and cost is unpopular if asked directly but it is done all the time in normal everyday life. Not every car comes will all the available safety features. Driving with a certain amount of alcohol consumption is allowed although discouraged. Not every product is designed totally fail-safe. On so on. The list of trade-offs is huge

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    According WHO it's still unclear whether recovered patients are immune to subsequent infections of Covid-19. So relying on 'herd immunity' right now involves a risk with unknown size. cnbc.com/2020/04/13/…
    – Lag
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 6:47

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