STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - As the architect of Sweden’s unorthodox response to the coronavirus pandemic, Anders Tegnell has got used to receiving death threats and being urged to resign.
But he says he has no plans to step down or step back and remains convinced that, over time, the anti-lockdown strategy that has seen his country break ranks with much of the world will prove its worth.
“I think a number of countries should have thought twice before taking the very drastic measure of a lockdown,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“That’s what’s experimental, not the Swedish model.”
While most countries have hunkered down behind closed doors, Sweden has relied on voluntary curbs on social contact, keeping most schools, restaurants, bars and businesses open.
Since March, its economy has outpaced the rest of Europe, but at over 5,000 its COVID-19 death toll is jarringly high - many times the combined total of neighbours Denmark, Finland and Norway.
Tegnell’s supporters, praising what they consider a forward-thinking approach to an unavoidable calamity, have sculpted his image in soap and wood, and the wave of flowers sent to the 64-year-old, a keen gardener, has been such that his local florist has asked for deliveries to be staggered.
Meanwhile the populist Sweden Democrats have described coronavirus deaths among the elderly as a “massacre” and demanded his resignation, and police have investigated multiple death threats against him.
Tegnell, his hair greying and worry lines creasing his forehead, calls Sweden’s death toll “horrible” but maintains there is little evidence linking it to the absence of a lockdown, pointing instead to conditions at nursing homes, a decentralised health care system and travel patterns.
A veteran of anti-Ebola health campaigns in Africa, he also argues that his critics have focused too little on the consequences of shutdowns.
“It is fascinating how little we in Sweden have discussed the very negative effects that lockdowns have had in many countries. Domestic abuse... schoolchildren with very serious problems in many other countries,” he said.
“The effects of different strategies, lockdowns and other measures, are much more complex than we understand today... This disease is very difficult to understand.”
The death rate among Swedish COVID cases has fallen about 70% from a peak in April and Tegnell says some countries that adopted hard lockdowns, like Britain, Italy and Spain, have suffered more.
For him, it is the actions of his Nordic neighbours that are the more baffling. “The question is rather whether they had a reason to shut down at all?” he said.
But his remains the minority view and as Europe gradually reopens for travellers, Swedes have been excluded by many countries, even within the usually tight-knit Nordic countries.
“Their strategy has failed,” said Allan Randrup Thomsen, professor of virology at the University of Copenhagen, where the death toll per capita is a fifth of Sweden’s.
“It’s been a decisive factor for their high infection number, that they didn’t shut down to the same extent that (Denmark)... did.”
Additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen; editing by Niklas Pollard and John Stonestreet