Myths and truths about "the experiment"

In an article at Behavioural Public Policy Blog, Erik Angner and Gustaf Arrhenius puts the Swedish response to Covid-19, seen by many to be an experiment and straying far from mainstram, in context. 

Seen from outside, Swedish politicians are often accused of giving up control over decisions to the experts at the Public Health Authority. This view is in part a misunderstanding of the Swedish model of govenment, the authors write.

"Sweden’s democratic system of government has a more pronounced epistocratic element than other comparable countries. The term means, roughly, rule by experts. By law and by tradition, Swedish politicians can’t tell the various government agencies what to do, and agencies count relatively few political appointees among their staff. This means that many of the day-to-day decisions relating to government business are made by staff hired on the basis of domain-relevant expertise, rather than political connections. “Ministerial rule” is expressly forbiddenIn the case of COVID-19 strategy, this means that many of the day-to-day decisions are made by staff epidemiologists at the Folkhälsomyndigheten (FHM), the Swedish Public Health Agency. In other countries COVID-19 policy is often developed and announced by politicians, with expert input as they see fit. In Sweden, policy is set by a panel of experts and typically announced by the chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, or his deputy. The latter have therefore, to a great extent, become the face of the government during the crisis."

The Swedish strategy is also seen as insufficiently strict. Swedes do still have a lot more freedom, for instance freedom of mobility, than compared to other countries. Part of the explanation for this, that is often ignored by ouside commentators, is consitutional constraints.

"Critics who deplore Sweden’s so-called lax approach to COVID-19 do not seem to understand that this approach is to a great extent determined by fundamental constitutional constraints.

Fundamental rights and freedoms cannot easily be restricted, so the Swedish strategy is largely spelled out as official “recommendations”. In terms of normative force, these fall somewhere between advice and law. The education system operates as usual, although schooling for those aged 16-18 years and universities have switched to online instruction. People with symptoms of infection, older people, and people at higher risk for severe illness are encouraged to self-isolate. Everyone is expected to work from home if possible. Compliance with recommendations is high, but far from universal. The Stockholm metro can be completely empty during rush hour, and intercity travel during the long Easter weekend was down about 90% compared to the previous year. That said, some people are still out and about, shopping with abandon or enjoying themselves in outdoor cafés.

The central rationale for the Swedish approach is that harsher measures (border closures, school closings, total lockdowns, etc. ) would be ineffective from a public-health standpoint. Consistent with the playbook, FHM argues that there is little solid evidence for the claim that harsher measures would do any good at this stage of the outbreak. They are not trying to prevent harms to the economy by sacrificing public health, as some appear to believe."

Read the article: The Swedish Exception