Into the Unknown: How Denmark and Sweden Differ in Their Approaches to the COVID-19 Pandemic

An expert in Scandinavian politics, our very own Martin Cleemann Rasmussen shared his reflections on the differences between Sweden and Denmark’s strategies in reaction to the outbreak of COVID-19. Read Martin’s insights, what’s being done, and how the citizens of each country have responded.

By Martin Cleemann Rasmussen, faculty member, DIS

To most outsiders, the Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Sweden may seem alike. Though often pitted against each other throughout history, the last two hundred years have been characterized by a strong friendship, where both countries have developed into highly integrated neighbor regions with a strong interdependence.

Though retaining some differences, the similarities are striking. Based on solid democratic multi-party parliamentary systems, high institutional trust, and highly developed welfare states, both countries have been able to offer systems to their citizens that provide with an almost unheard of cradle-to-grave welfare that few other countries in the world can match.

But something has changed recently. The countries have chosen widely different ways of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Danish Approach

Rather too much than too little

In Denmark, the approach has been similar to the one employed by the majority of European countries: closed external borders, the shutting down of educational institutions, and enforced social distancing.

Among the arguments for the drastic lockdown, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen stated, “We would rather do too much than too little.” On the same evening as the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Danish Queen Margrethe II gave a speech on national television; she spoke of the severity of the situation and gave a moral warning to those Danes who did not take the situation seriously.

The days that followed

In the days following the lockdown, a number of questions arouse that indicated the political leadership was not perfectly aligned with the health authorities. Was the current testing strategy correct, and did it match the severity of the lockdown? Did it make any medical sense to close the external borders when the pandemic was already well rooted inside Denmark? Was Denmark taking too drastic measures?

Despite these discussions, the Danish top-down approach was generally based on advice, statistics, and models provided by the Danish health authorities, though these were not always in agreement internally.

The Corona code-of-conduct

The measures, once considered inconceivable to most Danes just a few weeks before, have been backed by the vast majority of the population from the very beginning. The Corona code-of-conduct (i.e. wash hands, keep distance, and don’t hoard goods or food) has become the norm and informative radio spots and television shows for children have become a part of the daily routine.

In combination with massive financial state subsidy packages for both the private and public sectors, the Danes have settled down to follow the daily statistics for the long-haul efficiency of the Danish approach.    

The Swedish Approach

Retaining normality

In Sweden, the approach has been very different indeed. Characterized by some as a strategy of “retaining normality” and preventing medical and economic backlash seen in other countries, the Swedish approach has been far less radical than the lockdown model.

Though the Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced that things could change with short notice, the Swedish approach put responsibility on the individual as the key to combatting the pandemic. This approach – also reinforced by the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustav – is based on the directives and predictions by the Swedish health authorities and, not least, its chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

A balance of power

In Sweden, they have taken much less direct control over how to handle the crisis. This mainly reflects a different balance of power between the professional and political administration in Sweden. It ensures that the administration and its experts have a much more central policy-shaping and policy-directing role than its colleagues in Denmark.

The Swedish health authorities have also pointed to the demographic characteristics of Sweden compared to a country like Denmark. Despite having 10.1 million inhabitants compared to Denmark´s only 5.6 million, the Swedes are simply more spread out with a density of only 25 people per square kilometer compared to Denmark’s 137 people. This gives Sweden a “natural” distancing advantage when compared to its Danish neighbor, though in Stockholm and other major Swedish cities, this is obviously not the case.

A trust in the authorities

Though, once again, according to the Swedish approach, this is where the responsibility of the individual comes in. Through responsible conduct and a trust in the authorities, the vast number of individuals will uphold the guidelines without the need for strict enforcement. Those that become infected, can self-isolate at home (with mild symptoms) and since a substantial amount live alone or in small families without elderly members, this will limit the spread and its impact and improve herd-immunity. In the more severe cases of the disease, the extra measures taken to strengthen the preparedness of the Swedish healthcare system will be adequate to handle the expected number of cases. Again, this is based on the calculations and models of the Swedish health authorities.

This point of view is also supported by a number of Swedish economic experts as it is their estimate  that the Swedish approach will make the effects on the broader Swedish society less severe than the lockdown strategy. Together with substantial economic stimuli from the Swedish state and agreements between employers and employed, it is hoped that the Swedish strategy will ensure the survivability of the Swedish welfare state beyond the present pandemic.   

Time will tell

With different approaches, both nations have engaged in an experiment into the unknown waters of the current crisis. Not surprisingly, much media attention has been given to the differences between the two approaches and especially, the possible consequences of the Swedish approach.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember, that both countries have seen a massive approval of their respective approaches by the vast majority of both their health professionals as well as their populations. As anxious eyes scan the daily statistics from both sides of the Strait of Oresund, time will tell on whether the strategies employed were the right ones.

Martin Cleeman Rasmussen is a DIS Copenhagen Smester Faculty Member. Martin got his Masters from the University of Copenhagen in Russian and History, graduating on Civil-Military relations in Russia. He  was a Senior Advisor NordGEN at the Nordic Council of Ministers from 2005-2009 on Russia and the CIS, an Associate Professor Nordic Council of Ministers Petrazavodsk State, and is currently an associate professor at the Royal Danish Officer Academy.

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