STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Sweden used to find cheerleaders among conservative commentators and activists in the US for its light-hearted approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
However, with the number of deaths and infections rising, the Swedish government has been forced to put in place stricter regulations to prevent the virus from spreading.
Starting Tuesday, the number of people who can meet publicly will be reduced from 50 to eight. In restaurants, only eight guests are allowed per table.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven issued a stern warning on Sunday evening when explaining the new rules.
“Tonight, in late November 2020, it is clear that it will be some time before we can get back to normal,” he told the nation in a televised address. “Many neglected the council in the autumn.”
“All of the things you would like to do but you don’t have to: cancel, postpone,” he added.
Dr. Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of the Swedish Department of Microbiology, welcomed the new rules that the government unilaterally issued.
“Large gatherings risk infection,” she said Friday, adding that it was “a positive thing” to limit it.
She said people were tired of following the initial recommendations, “so we had to take tougher measures.”
The central government earlier this month issued a recommendation to regional governments to close public gatherings such as concerts, theater performances and lectures.
It also banned serving of alcohol after 10 p.m. Specific local recommendations, including avoiding public transportation and shops, also apply across much of the country.
Unlike many other European countries, including its Scandinavian neighbors, which had strict rules and bans in place, Sweden had previously relied on recommendations that people should wash their hands, socialize and work from home.
However, the number of cases rose significantly at the end of last month, a trend that has continued into November. Almost 6,406 people have died from the virus and almost 208,295 cases have been recorded, according to data John Hopkins University. As a result, the government was forced to act.
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“It is very frustrating and worrying to hear about the increasing numbers of sick and dead people,” said 75-year-old Mats Jerresten, adding that the new rules will make little difference to him as he is spending his time in public limited since March.
However, he said he would have to wait longer to see his 12 grandchildren.
For Pady Cortinez, a communications project manager, the new measures mean “both fear and respect”.
“They are just trying to adjust to the situation,” said Cortinez, 48, adding that she stopped going to bars and “didn’t hug”.
As the number increases, medical institutions such as Karolinska University Hospital in the Swedish capital Stockholm have to prepare.
The CEO, Dr. Björn Zoëga said Thursday that the elective surgery and other procedures had been canceled, but other acute surgeries on cancer or heart patients would continue.
His colleague Dr. Björn Persson, director of intensive care and thoracic surgery, added that the hospital had increased capacity in case there was an increase in patients but it was not full.
Sweden “was not prepared for the rapid spread of the disease this year like other societies,” said Zoëga.
“It was quick,” he said, adding that most of the government’s decisions were “pretty good”.
His opinion was supported by Dr. Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, a doctor and professor at the Karolinska Institute, said last week that health officials “gave up” very early
“They saw the virus enter Sweden. We didn’t have testing capacity so we couldn’t do testing and contact tracing and they didn’t update that. So they kind of stepped back,” she said.
“There were a lot of things that we said they should do that they didn’t and it just went off,” she said, adding that she disagreed with the government’s claim that she was listening to the scientists .
Long-term Covid-19 patients continued to be a concern because they were not properly monitored, which meant it was difficult to find the best route to treatment and rehabilitation, she said.
Such patients “were at an unacceptable level” in the spring and were not being properly treated, she said.
Calling the situation “worrying”, she said, “We do not know how you will recover because we do not currently know enough about this disease.”
However, everyone hoped that a vaccine would soon be available. But Persson warned that there must be a balance between “vaccine speed and safety”.