Unlike almost every other western country, Sweden didn’t impose mass Covid lockdowns or mask-wearing on its people. Yet Swedes have not suffered unusually high rates of infection or death.
What went right?
Nearly all Swedes locked themselves down and wore masks anyway, because they wanted to. The country’s “libertarian” approach, lauded by lockdown sceptics, was really the opposite, says Andrew Brown in Foreign Policy. “Swedes know how they should behave, and they expect everyone else to behave in the same way.” What keeps them so safe, in normal times as well as during the pandemic, is conformism: they have an unusually strong sense of “what is and is not done”. Ironically, says Brown, it is this “deference toward the unwritten rules of society” that has made Sweden an “idol for libertarians” during the Covid crisis. It has one of the most advanced welfare states in the world, precisely the kind of “big government” libertarians normally hate.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing?
No. The king was wheeled out last Christmas to apologise to Swedes for the state’s “failed” pandemic response, although he didn’t criticise the anti-lockdown strategy. In the first wave, Sweden’s Covid death rate was higher than Denmark’s or Norway’s, though never as high as Britain’s. And while keeping shops and bars open meant Sweden took less of an economic hit than other European countries, it still suffered from not being able to do business with its locked-down neighbours.
Why is Sweden so conformist?
In large part because of its extensive welfare state, which in turn owes a lot to one remarkable woman, Alva Myrdal. In 1934 she wrote a book about how to bump up Sweden’s birth rate, then the lowest in Europe. The Crisis in the Population Question argued that to get Swedes breeding, the state should provide free medical care, free contraceptives, free school lunches, universal social benefits and better, more affordable housing. It worked. Over the ensuing decades all her proposed reforms came to pass, making Swedes not only more numerous, but also much better off. (She later won Sweden’s highest honour, the Nobel peace prize). At the start of the 20th century, when Myrdal was born, Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe. It’s now the third richest per capita in the EU, says Bloomberg.
Are they all rich, then?
Not exactly. Despite its reputation as a liberal paradise, Sweden is incredibly unequal. It has one of the highest rates of billionaires in the world – one in every 250,000. Only comically small countries such as St Kitts and Nevis (50,000 people, one billionaire) or comically tax-haveny ones like Switzerland (40 billionaires) have a higher rate. One family alone, the Wallenbergs, control a business empire worth €250bn. Their holdings add up to a third of Sweden’s entire stock exchange. But Swedes don’t seem to mind, says The Economist. Talk of levying harsh taxes on the rich is “met with a shrug” thanks to the widely held view that getting rich from inventing Spotify, making Volvos or being in Abba is fair enough. It helps that the social welfare net means even the poorest are basically fine.
Is it true that they’re all good-looking?
It depends what you’re into, but The Sun says the British rate Swedes as “the most attractive of all other nations”. They are unusually tall (men and women are on average two inches taller than their British counterparts), 80% of them are blonde and 79% have blue eyes, compared to just 8% of the global population. What we really envy, though, according to The Sun, is their “glowing complexions” – the result, apparently, of eating “a lot of herring”.
Is this a recent thing?
They’ve always been eye-catching. When 10th-century Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan caught sight of the Swedish Vikings, he swooned: “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy.” A century earlier, Byzantine Emperor Theophilos spotted them and was so impressed he invited Swedes to become his personal bodyguards. Many stuck around in Constantinople for 400 years. But the Swedes have long since hung up their horned helmets and battleaxes. Sweden has been officially at peace since 1814, a record even the pathologically neutral Swiss can only gawp at.
Is that why they’re so happy?
Since 2013, every time the World Happiness Report has published its annual rankings, Sweden has been in the top 10. One commonly cited reason is that it’s easy to have a highly functional, high-trust society when everyone is so ethnically and socially similar. In fact, say the authors of the 2020 World Happiness Report, this is a myth. Sweden is highly diverse: 19% of the population was born elsewhere, more than double the world average. What matters, say the report’s authors, is the lack of “ethnic residential segregation”. In other words, Sweden has no ghettos. Migrants also enjoy plenty of state help, so are less likely to be significantly poorer, reporting the same happiness levels as indigenous Swedes. The result is little mutual resentment and a lot of social trust – just what you need during a global pandemic.
Is that why they’ve avoided lockdowns?
Swedes have been allowed to use their folkvett, or common sense, says Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph. That’s only possible in such a trusting, conformist country. And while Sweden is more densely urbanised than even Britain (88% of the population live in cities, compared to 84% of Brits), it is not a global travel hub. Ultimately, Swedes want to control the virus as much as anyone else. But they are also determined to protect normal life, which may be why three in four of them say the government has handled Covid “well or very well”. What marks Sweden out, says Nelson, is an “unbroken belief that its method could still be proved right in the end”.
👧🏼 🐉 🥁 Not everyone in Sweden is pro-billionaires. One well-connected Swede pointed out to us that bestselling “Scandi noir” books such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (in which, spoiler alert, the baddies are billionaires) are really a “weird way for Swedish people (who believe that everyone should be equal) to express their underlying view that to be rich you have to be a psycho, and to be a psycho you have to be rich”.
🏰 👑 👻 The 17th-century Drottningholm Palace, near Stockholm, is the permanent residence of King Carl XVI Gustaf, Queen Silvia – and, according to the queen, some “very friendly” ghosts. “There are lots of them,” the 77-year-old told a documentary crew in 2017. “They’re all very friendly, but you do sometimes feel that you aren’t alone. They aren’t scary, and in a way it’s quite thrilling. Imagine the stories they could tell!”