Sweden has become an international phenomenon for its relaxed response to the Covid-19 pandemic – which some critics describe as careless. Its no-lockdown strategy has been based almost solely on personal responsibility. This point has been made to Swedes by solemn-faced politicians, most recently before Christmas. It’s up to every Swedish citizen to maintain social distancing and, if possible, work from home. Restaurants, bars, cafés, shops, and even malls have stayed open throughout the crisis. Face masks have not been recommended nor encouraged (although in a surprising change of heart from the authorities, masks will be made mandatory from January 7 in certain situations, such as on public transport during peak hours).
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has used stern, atypically Swedish language to underline the importance of individual responsibility. ‘Too many people have been careless about following the recommendations,’ he thundered in November. A few weeks later he declared the situation ‘serious,’ Löfven and urged people to avoid crowded areas and unnecessary shopping trips. ‘I hope and believe that everyone in Sweden understands this.’
Only two days later, it would transpire, the Prime Minister visited the largest shopping mall in the capital’s city centre to pick up his watch from a repair shop. Apparently, he’d also been to a state-run off license, chosen a Christmas gift for his wife, and bought a spare part for his electric shaver.
Sweden is a high-tech country where even our eldest citizens are on social media: why didn’t Löfven just purchase the goods online? Why would the Prime Minister risk picking up a potentially deadly virus and undermining his government’s own advice to run a few errands? And going to the same shopping centres he advised others to avoid?
But in hindsight, Stefan Löfven’s unnecessary visit to the shops seems almost silly to make a fuss over. For there was more to come.
The Löfven shopping story broke on December 29. On December 26, the Minister for Justice, Morgan Johansson, was seen taking advantage of the sales in a mall in the city of Lund, despite strict recommendations from the government and the Public Health Agency to avoid malls, particularly during the period between Christmas and New Year (typically the Swedish sales). On December 30 Magdalena Andersson, the finance minister, was revealed to have visited the crowded Swedish ski resort of Sälen. She photographed by a member of the public renting a pair of skis on December 20, when new restrictions had been put in place and the public was again told by the government to avoid all unnecessary travel. ‘When I spotted her, I felt that there was no need to feel guilty over being [on holiday],’ a witness cheerily exclaimed to the Aftonbladet daily newspaper.
Worse was to come. For where was Dan Eliasson, Director General of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), a key actor in Sweden’s national crisis management? Why, he was holidaying on the Canary Islands, just off the African coast – a six-hour flight. This was despite Swedes being urged to avoid travel to stop the spread of the virus.
The holiday season has revealed that a heap of the country’s leading politicians and decision-makers are in possession of absurdly bad judgement and a rather offensive set of double standards.
At least Sweden should be able to make a fresh start once they leave office, right? Wrong. For, as has been the pattern here for years, there are seldom any tangible consequences in Swedish public life for not practising what you preach.
The MSB’s Dan Eliasson even had the guts to describe his holiday in the sun as ‘necessary’ and so within the rules, after he landed back in Stockholm on January 2. The thousands of ordinary Swedes who have refrained from seeing their nearest and dearest relatives this Christmas have expressed their disgust on social media. Will Eliasson be fired? Not necessarily. He is your typical Swedish comeback kid, a civil servant who’s loyal to the powerful Social Democratic party and who keeps bouncing back to powerful positions again and again, no matter what. As head of the country’s Police Authority, he was heavily criticised by staff and politicians, yet after resigning from the position in 2018, he was immediately offered his current role.
Sweden is sometimes referred to as ‘the world’s conscience,’ excelling in the art of finger-pointing at failed states and authoritarian leaders. But perhaps our politicians should follow this up with a disclaimer: "do as we say, not as we do".