Anders Tegnell and the Swedish Covid Experiment

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In the muse of this 12 months, Anders Tegnell became correct a low-profile bureaucrat in a nation of 10m folks, heading a division that collects and analyses files on public health. At the original time, he has change into one of the indispensable edifying acknowledged — and most controversial — figures of the world coronavirus disaster.

The 64-12 months-old Swedish doctor became intended to exercise 2020 helping Somalia build of living up a public health agency as properly as sending questionnaires out to Swedes to gauge varied facets of their wellbeing. As a change, his formulation to Covid-19 — to retain schools, eating areas, fitness centres and borders birth whereas refusing to note China in imposing a formal lockdown — has viewed him change into an unlikely polarising accept a polarised age.

For many Swedes, their yelp epidemiologist has embodied a rational approach as other worldwide locations be pleased regarded as if it would sacrifice science to emotion. “I wish I were coming with you to discover him,” one of Sweden’s main chief executives confided to me correct sooner than I went to discover Tegnell. “The potential he has stood for what he believes in whereas the leisure of the sphere does something else is admirable.”

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s yelp epidemiologist © TT Recordsdata Agency/AFP by job of Getty Photography

Public make stronger for Tegnell has remained excessive over a length whereby life, whereas very varied to sooner than, has been more customary than in loads of other worldwide locations. Such is his stock in Sweden that there are experiences of folks having his bespectacled face tattooed on their our bodies, whereas some on the American and British edifying be pleased seized on Tegnell as a champion of freedoms they honestly feel they be pleased got lost at some level of lockdown.

But for a minority domestically, and diverse internationally, he’s one blueprint more problematic settle. The populist Sweden Democrats be pleased known as for him to resign after thousands of elderly in care properties died. That has given Sweden the fifth-very best loss of life rate per capita in Europe, five cases higher than neighbouring Denmark and about 10 cases higher than Norway and Finland.

For some local consultants, Tegnell’s standing by myself as the sphere locked down inspires none of the CEO’s veneration. “Tegnell is acknowledged for his stubbornness. You marvel what this would possibly per chance per chance be pleased regarded esteem with a varied person guilty,” says a Swedish epidemiologist who has been a critic of Tegnell’s. International media were harsher silent: The Recent York Times has known as Sweden a “pariah yelp” and “the sphere’s cautionary myth”.

Bathers abilities a Stockholm seaside in June © Andres Kudacki

The man so honored and so decried works in a drab backstreet building in a northern Stockholm suburb shut to the capital’s edifying medical institution. Tegnell emerges out of the final public health agency’s canteen smiling and having a gape both rested and tanned in a short-sleeve blue polo shirt. It is a warm leisurely August day and we take a seat within the noon sunshine at a wonky picnic desk, him nursing a mug of sunless espresso, me a bowl of deer and wild mushroom stew. I launch by asking him to give himself a myth card — and his acknowledge is fundamental Tegnell, defending Sweden’s approach resolutely and casting light aspersions on others.

“At the outset, we talked very critical about sustainability, and I deem that’s something we managed to retain to. And likewise be a exiguous resistant to like a flash fixes, to realise that right here’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be a transient form of thing, it’s not going to be mounted by one form of measure. We discover a disease that we’re going to must take care of for a really long time into the future and now we must glean programs for doing that,” he says, alongside with his arms crossed tightly to his chest as they are for virtually your entire hour-long interview.


Our meeting comes as things appear to be going his potential. As coronavirus situations rise in relatively critical all other European worldwide locations, main to fears of a 2d wave including within the UK, they be pleased got been sinking all summer in Sweden. On a per capita basis, they are undoubtedly 90 per cent below their height in leisurely June and under Norway’s and Denmark’s for the first time in five months. Tegnell had told me the first time we spoke within the spring that it’d be within the autumn when it became more apparent how winning every nation had been.

Chart showing that Covid-19 cases are falling in Sweden but rising in the EU

At the original time, the architect of Sweden’s lighter-touch approach says the nation would per chance be pleased “a low level of unfold” with occasional local outbreaks. “What it would per chance be in other worldwide locations, I deem that is going to be more serious. They are usually more liable to those form of spikes. Those form of things will presumably be bigger if you don’t be pleased a level of immunity that would possibly per chance well form of save the brake on it,” he provides.

Herd immunity is one of essentially the most controversial ideas of the Covid-19 disaster. Tegnell is adamant that it became not Sweden’s goal to enable the virus to hurry its direction till passable of the population had been exposed and the infection rate slowed. But he argues immunity isn’t not as a lot as in segment to blame for the keen original fall in Swedish situations and questions how its neighbours will fare without it. “What is maintaining Copenhagen this day? We’ll provide the probability to discover,” he provides.

Sweden’s formulation to the pandemic is queer in wide segment as a result of its governance is queer. Not like in relatively critical every other nation, it’s not politicians who need the huge choices nevertheless Sweden’s public health agency, as a result of its structure giving huge powers to goal authorities. In apply, this means Tegnell. “This entire approach is Tegnell’s. The federal government has current it without questions,” says the serious epidemiologist.

That makes his capability to stand by myself as the leisure of the sphere locked down appear all of the more excellent. I inquire of him about it, suggesting it ought to be more straightforward correct to waft. “Sure, indubitably it’s. But I am not by myself,” he says, dutifully itemizing the backing of the 500 workers within the final public health agency as properly as Sweden’s government and population.

The edifying other nation now to not lock down in Europe became authoritarian Belarus, I counsel. He erupts in a burst of apprehensive laughter: “That’s no comparison.” He looks awkward as I original staunch make stronger for Sweden’s approach from some US libertarians and UK supporters of a laborious Brexit. “Extraordinary bedfellows,” is his sole comment.

His disfavor of national lockdowns is apparent. “It’s undoubtedly utilizing a hammer to break a cruise,” he insists. As a change, his approach has been about having a methodology that would possibly per chance well work for years if wants be, reasonably than the constant slicing and altering viewed within the leisure of Europe. “We don’t discover it as viable to be pleased this blueprint of drastic closing down, opening and closing. It is probably going you’ll perhaps well’t birth and shut schools. That is going to be a catastrophe. And likewise you potentially can’t birth and shut eating areas and stuff esteem that either too time and again. Just a few times, dawdle, nevertheless then folks will get very tired and companies will potentially endure higher than for folks that shut them down entirely,” he says.

Chart showing that Sweden’s Covid-19 experience is typical of the other Nordic countries on the economy . . .  but of the worst of Europe on deaths

Sweden’s approach became predicated on making an strive to retain its healthcare plot working nevertheless also having a gape at public health within the broadest sense, reasonably than narrowly making an strive to minimise Covid-19 deaths. So teenagers’s sports actions carried on, as did predominant college lessons, yoga lessons, ingesting and eating out with company, and procuring.

This lunge back and forth is my first time in Stockholm for six months — I am essentially based completely in Oslo and had been to Sweden as soon as at some level of the pandemic, to Gothenburg in June — and I soon pick into my typical rhythm. I lunge myth procuring at diverse of my current spots, selecting up diverse bargains, be pleased espresso with a contact nearby, and need the metro to meetings and my hotel. All the blueprint through, I barely discover a single person with a conceal.

I counsel to Tegnell that an alien landing in Sweden would be pleased relate realizing there’s a pandemic whereas in England or France, with face masks prevalent, they would realise at this time. He argues that whereas that would be correct on the ground, in particular with masks — which Sweden is one of the indispensable few worldwide locations now to not imply carrying in public — the diversities in varied areas are exaggerated. Swedes be pleased stopped travelling correct as critical as neighbours; hotels and eating areas would possibly per chance well well also not be pleased closed nevertheless were severely affected.

He facets to the markings in supermarkets displaying folks the build to stand and detailed restrictions on eating areas by job of how many folks they would be pleased and the blueprint they lend a hand them.

Tegnell on a ‘wash hands’ poster on the doorway of a restaurant in Stockholm © AFP by job of Getty Photography

“All these restrictions don’t exist nearly wherever else than in Sweden. We be pleased got undoubtedly tried to focal level on areas that now we be pleased acknowledged are going to be undoubtedly harmful, whereas going true into a myth shop and procuring a myth won’t motive an entire bunch of folks to get infected,” he says, including: “It is there, nevertheless I deem, as an alien, strive and be right here a exiguous longer to discover it.”

With out warning, a young blonde lady rushes up within the lend a hand of him, vegetation a huge kiss on his cheek, and says in Swedish: “I knew I’d find you right here.” I be pleased to gape a exiguous stressed as Tegnell introduces her as his daughter, Emily. “I’m one other fan, attacking him. Must silent I call somebody?” she says jocularly.


Emily is an intensive care doctor who in overall lives in Gothenburg nevertheless is within the meanwhile in Stockholm for a direction. A melancholy-haired friend accompanying her comes as a lot as Tegnell and merely says: “Factual job.” I counsel Emily ought to be more relaxed than she has been in old months when coronavirus stretched Swedish healthcare. “She worked for the MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] in Congo with Ebola, so I deem she’s not that upset about this,” he says, topic-of-factly. Has the truth Emily and Annemiek, one other of his daughters, who is a nurse, work in healthcare helped him fancy better the pressures within the plot? “It’s merely to chat to them as a result of they can give me a varied form of discover,” he says. He laughs that they are saying he’s not “a true doctor” nevertheless merely a bureaucrat. As well they tease him about articles that be pleased, to illustrate, known as him a formulation icon no topic his reasonably informal vogue and esteem of polo shirts in varied shades.

Such is Tegnell’s stock in Sweden that folks be pleased had his bespectacled face tattooed on their our bodies © AFP by job of Getty Photography

Tegnell, in about a short months, has change into essentially the most renowned Swede, both at residence and in a single other nation. “It’s hype,” he says. “And it’s entirely surreal.” He tells of a lady and her son turning up at his residence with a portrait of him fabricated from plastic beads. He tries to argue that epidemiologists in varied areas be pleased change into properly acknowledged, sooner than conceding “folks wouldn’t tattoo their face on their arms”.

He says that his popularity is a “space” and became never his ambition. He is eager in free speech nevertheless feedback comparing him to Hitler or Stalin “are not OK”, and he has spoken to police over loss of life threats. Does the mixture of his sudden popularity and him appearing to stand by myself wreck him shield his positions even more stubbornly? “Not undoubtedly, no. But, indubitably, it potential I would per chance be pleased to be very cautious about what I’m asserting,” he says. Is there a hazard that he turns into too unruffled, too critical on the extent of fundamental statistics reasonably than the tragedy of 5,800 deaths and rising? “That’s, indubitably, a hazard nevertheless I deem, then, it’s merely to be pleased the form of abilities that I be pleased. I’ve worked in hospitals. I’ve viewed the flu epidemics and folks coming in and overflooding the hospitals. I worked with Ebola in Africa. I originate realise what diseases can originate to a society and a plot.”

Chart showing that the profile of Sweden’s pandemic differs radically from those of its neighbours

Tegnell had a customary Swedish childhood till he became 12 and his family moved to Ethiopia. He says the replace of scenery affected him deeply. He met his Dutch partner at college within the US sooner than travelling widely. In space of his fight against Ebola in what became then Zaire in 1995, he says his time correct sooner than that working on vaccination programmes in Laos for the World Health Organization became essentially the most formative. “I undoubtedly learned in regards to the importance of colossal pondering in public health. I deem that’s also partly within the lend a hand of our approach and also what the agency is doing. We are not correct working with communicable diseases, we’re working with public health as an entire,” he says.


So he looks at schools not correct as a local the build the virus would possibly per chance well well unfold nevertheless also the foremost segment of health for a teen. “Must you be successful there, your life would per chance be merely. Must you fail, your life is going to be critical worse. You’re going to live shorter. You’re going to be poorer. That, indubitably, is within the lend a hand of your head if you launch talking about closing schools,” he provides.

In June, Tegnell described the hurry to lock down within the leisure of Europe and the US as “it became as if the sphere had long gone inflamed”. He looks more emollient this day, nevertheless he silent displays indicators of disbelief on the approaches of others. Adopting face masks is “more of a observation than undoubtedly a measure”. He provides: “Face masks are a simple resolution, and I’m deeply distrustful of easy solutions to advanced problems.” I inquire of him about one other old comment: hadn’t he acknowledged that Sweden, within the local vernacular, had “ice in its stomach” whereas other worldwide locations had acted emotionally?

Diners in Stockholm in April. Even supposing they be pleased got been hit by tight restrictions, Tegnell says ‘you potentially can’t birth and shut eating areas . . . too time and again’ in accordance to other worldwide locations’ varied public policies © Andres Kudacki

“That comes lend a hand to sustainability. Sustainability, to a clear extent, is to be pleased ice in your stomach as a result of it’s considerable to have within the long-length of time effects of what you’re doing and not initiating to doubt them too early,” he says. Tegnell looks to be pleased few doubts. He precipitated a lunge in June by suggesting that Sweden would were more challenging if it knew to birth with of the pandemic what it knew then. But after I inquire of him this day if he would be pleased performed the leisure in yet every other blueprint, he answers that whereas it would were merely to dangle how Covid-19 would get “I’m undecided it would be pleased changed very critical”.

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Our dialog ends with Tegnell again swimming against the tide, and warning that a vaccine — if and when it comes — would possibly per chance well well not be the “silver bullet”. He provides: “Once more, I’m not very fond of easy solutions to advanced problems and to have that after the vaccine is right here, we are in a position to return and live as we constantly be pleased performed. I deem that’s a harmful message to send as a result of it’s not going to be that easy.”

Richard Milne is the FT’s Nordic and Baltic correspondent

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