Sweden's response to Covid-19 and the limits of individualism

The Swedish approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has become the source of international fascination and controversy. The country remains a global outlier in the way it has responded to the crisis, with the national government and the Swedish Public Health Agency (also known as FoHM) avoiding lockdowns in favour of mitigating measures based on citizen self-regulation and individual responsibility. Swedish citizens remain relatively unrestricted in their freedom of movement by the Covid-19 measures introduced and have been free to choose how much they expose themselves to the virus.

This is unlikely to change in the short-term, as the vaccination campaign is going well, with rates close to the European average. But further down the line, if there will be future waves of contagion driven by variants that might be resistant to existing vaccines, the current attitude towards lockdowns and the government policy response might change.

A range of different factors have been identified among the key drivers of Sweden’s Covid-19 policies. The prominent role of FoHM state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has led some columnists and academics to argue that the Swedish response represents something akin to an “authoritarian technocracy” or a “tyranny of experts”.

For Swedish constitutional scholars, this emphasis on expertise stems largely from a constitutional settlement that affords expert-led public agencies high levels of autonomy in policy-making. What is often referred to in Sweden as “ministerial rule” prohibits government ministers from interfering in a public agency decision, which limits government policy options. The unique aspect of this approach is the emphasis on Swedish scientific exceptionalism. Scientists are regarded as neutral and politically impartial participants who can honestly and objectively assess the problem at hand. The curious paradox of this approach in the case of Covid-19 is that the dominant views of FoHM experts were out of step with scientific opinion across the globe. The FoHM significantly underestimated the negative health impacts and transmissibility of Covid-19, which informed the aversion towards the use of extensive lockdowns.

Other scholars, such as Camelia Dewan and Cristiano Lanzano writing in this blog, note that the Swedish response is grounded in high levels of public trust and support in the national government and expert agencies. Trust is combined with strong traditions of societal consensus, compliance, and conflict avoidance. Recourse to expertise and high levels of public trust and consensus, however, are not the only dimensions that explain the Swedish response. An alternative perspective is that the government approach to Covid-19 has been largely driven by the dominant underlying political, social and cultural ethos of what Swedish historians Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh refer to as “statist individualism”. They define this as an ideology based on a strong alliance between the state and the individual, which emphasises the role of the state in creating the conditions for the individual to flourish.

This underpins the Swedish constitution and forms the basis of the social contract between the state and the citizen. Statist individualism is a narrative that pervades the attitudes, beliefs, values and norms of Swedish society and is shared by the majority of citizens across the political spectrum. There is a need to examine how this ideology has informed and influenced the policy choices made by the Swedish government and FoHM experts during the pandemic.

A dominant ideology

Trägårdh points out that “in Sweden, a high trust society, the state is viewed more as a friend than a foe. Indeed, the state is welcomed as a liberator from traditional unequal forms of community including the family, charities and churches”. It is the strong relationship between the state and the individual that distinguishes the Swedish social contract from other societal models across Europe. For example, in countries such as the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain there is more emphasis on the role of family, church and civil society in finding solutions to a range of social, welfare and economic issues.

The Swedish social contract embraces the idea of civic universalism within the nation state where the individual is the basic unit. This focus on the individual resonates with the British classic liberal tradition embodied by the thoughts of 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book On Liberty. Here Mill develops the idea of the individual as sovereign:

… in the part which merely concerns himself, [the individual’s] independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Mill, however, tempers this idea of the sovereign individual by introducing the concept of a “harm principle”. Mill stresses that “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. It is in respect of this principle that the state can take precedence over the individual in protecting society as a whole.

What distinguishes the concept of statist individualism from the British liberal idea of the individual is the different understanding of the role of the state in society. Mill regarded the state as a continuing threat to individual liberty and believed that its role should be minimised, whereas, in the Swedish model, the role of the state is viewed more positively. As Berggren and Trägårdh note, the strength of the Swedish social contract is that “an emphasis on individual autonomy coincides with a positive view of the state as an ally of not only weaker and more vulnerable citizens, but the citizenry at large”.

The idea of the role of the state in liberating the citizen would have been an anathema to Mill and to other Anglo-American liberal and libertarian thinkers; it would be regarded as paternalistic with an emphasis on freedom through the state, not freedom from the state.

The Swedish social democratic model is often misunderstood from both sides of the Anglo-Saxon debate on capitalism vs socialism. Sweden is upheld, with good reason, by left-wingers around the world as a bastion of social democracy and a positive example of a possible balance between capitalism and socialism. What these views tend to miss, as Berggren and Trägårdh astutely observe, is that the overarching aim of the Swedish welfare state is to enhance individual autonomy at the expense of family ties and other close collective social bonds – something that is also well captured in the 2015 documentary The Swedish Theory of Love by Italian-Swedish director Erik Gandini.

Statist individualism and Sweden’s response to Covid-19

The Swedish state did recognise the threat to health posed by the virus and set a range of recommendations for mitigating the spread, but it was left to the individual to carry out their own risk assessment and choose which recommendations to follow. In the words of Anders Tegnell, “you give [people] the option to do what is best in their lives”.

It is also possible that statist individualism is what informed the government and health agency’s refusal to implement tougher lockdown measures, despite overwhelming evidence from other countries that lockdowns help control the spread of the virus and reduce death rates. In advocating a policy of voluntary social distancing over societal lockdown, the government has made a proactive decision not to violate or threaten the individual liberty and freedoms, which would potentially threaten the social contract between the Swedish state and citizen.

Consensus plays an important role in the Swedish case, and here the comparison with the UK is enlightening. In the early phases of the pandemic, the Tory-led government of Boris Johnson, strongly influenced by libertarian views of individual freedom and free markets, were reluctant to implement tough lockdown measures, also justified on the ground of keeping the economy going and preserving individual freedoms.

Ultimately, however, as the pandemic spread rapidly and threatened to overwhelm hospitals and significantly increase death rates, the UK government were prepared to abandon their initial stance in favour of an approach where the state played a strong role in imposing restrictions, based on epidemiological projections and prevailing scientific evidence. The more pluralistic nature of British society allowed for the consensus to shift towards a contingent reliance on state controls to reduce physical harm to individuals and the broader society.

In Sweden, on the other hand, while critical voices have increased over the months, public support for the government approach has remained consistently high. The academic Johan Strang points out that this is a highly conformist society with high levels of trust between politicians and citizens. A conformist logic, however, would suggest that the government would also have strong public support for instigating tougher lockdown measures. That the government chose not to implement harder measures might indicate the strength of consensus behind the statist individualism ideology that is informing the policy choices made by politicians and experts.

The limits of individualism

Thomas Hobbes, one of the very first social contract theorists in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, emphasised that the single most important task of the state is to safeguard all its citizens. In prioritizing individual freedom of choice over societal lockdown, the Swedish government’s response has left some of the most vulnerable members of society more exposed to the virus, including the elderly, working class and immigrant communities. This raises challenging questions about the relationship between the state and the individual during periods of crisis and whether policy choices based on an individualist logic – statist or not – are the most appropriate response to societal challenges.

At a global and national level, challenges such as Covid-19 require a coordinated and collaborative response based on a societal logic, rather than individualist thinking, in order to protect the most vulnerable from harm.

After the Covid-19 emergency is over, Swedish politicians, experts and citizens will have the opportunity to sit down and debate the merits and weaknesses of their constitution, and perhaps make adjustments where needed.  It will be important to learn from experience and to avoid repeating past mistakes in future crises.

It will not be easy to tackle head on the basic tenets of a deeply entrenched ideology. Yet, it is possible that the Covid-19 crisis, and the high levels of suffering and deaths experienced in comparison with other Nordic and European countries, will serve as an impetus for a national re-evaluation of statist individualism as a guide for policymaking during times of crisis.

Dr John. R. Moodie is a senior research fellow at Nordregio Research Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He has a research background in European Union politics and governance, specialising in the role of expertise in EU policymaking processes. His current research examines the territorial impacts of Covid-19 across European regions, and the role of sub-national actors in enhancing regional resilience during periods of crisis. He holds a PhD (Politics) and MA (Research) from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and a BA in History and Politics from the University of Nottingham.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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