Why is Denmark’s coronavirus lockdown so much tougher than Sweden’s?

Why is Denmark's coronavirus lockdown so much tougher than Sweden's?
Søren Brostrøm, Director General of the Danish Health Agency has described somme of Denmark's actions as 'political'. Photo: Scanpix.dk
To outsiders, Denmark and Sweden seem alike, but in their responses to coronavirus, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Why the difference and who, if either, is right?
The differences are quite extreme. Denmark was one of the first countries in Europe to close its borders, and has closed all schools, kindergartens, restaurants, and cafés and banned all gatherings of more than ten people.
 
In Sweden kindergartens, elementary schools, bars and cafés are still open as normal. 
 
Christian Wejse, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University, told The Local that he supported Denmark's rapid action to slow the development of the pandemic. 
 
“I'm a fan. I think we have a brave government and they've been ready to respond very quickly and in a very dramatic manner, even though the consequences are grave in terms of the economy,” he told The Local. “I think what applies here is the old saying, 'if you think preventing disease is expensive: try disease'.”  
 
In Sweden, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has come under fire from both scientists and from the public for not pushing for a tougher lockdown. 
 
“How many lives are they willing to sacrifice to avoid closing down and risking major consequences for the country's economy,” Joachim Rocklöv, a professor of epidemiology and public health sciences at Umeå University, said in an email conversation obtained by Swedish public broadcaster SVT
 
But even Søren Brostrøm, Director General of the Danish Health Authority, described Friday's decision to close Denmark's borders as “political”. 
 
“Border closure was not in our catalogue [of actions]. This is partly because there is fairly modest evidence that it is effective,” he said a press conference on Saturday, adding that it had was not part of the recommendations of the World Health Organisation either. 
 
Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who has been the leading force behind Sweden's more gradualist approach, explained to DR why Sweden had taken a more slowly-slowly approach.  
 
“In Sweden, our assessment is that its not relevant any more to close borders because the infection has already spread so much in every country in Europe, that inhibiting travel wouldn't have an effect,” he said.
 
The same cost-benefit analysis was behind its decision to not yet close elementary schools and kindergartens. 
 
“Closing schools is very significant, very complex measure, and we have discussed it a lot,” he said. “We know that we will see a lot of very negative effects from closing schools: you lose workforce in healthcare to an extent which is totally unacceptable to Sweden
 
“Children will also come out of school and meet a lot of other people, so it increases the risk of spreading the infection to others, and also the risk of spreading it to the elderly, who we think it is very important to protect.” 
 
On Monday, Denmark's Health Minister Magnus Heunicke was clear that some of his government's actions had no medical or scientific evidence to back them up. 
 
“We have no evidence that everything we are doing works,” he said. “But we would rather take a step too far today than find in three weeks that we have done too little.” 
 
“If we have to wait for full evidence to fight the corona, then it is my clear conviction that we will be too late,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at the same press conference. 
 

Tegnell put the difference in the two countries' responses down in part to the high level of independence enjoyed by Swedish government agencies such as his employer, the Public Health Agency of Sweden. 
 
“In Sweden, government agencies are extremely independent, even if it's the government that has the final decision, and we have a long tradition for that,” he said. 
 
On the one hand, this means decisions are less likely to be made to appeal to public emotions. But on the other, it means Swedish politicians feel less able to bulldoze cautious bureaucrats.  
 
There are also demographic differences which could have an impact: Sweden has a population density of 25 per square kilometre, whereas Denmark has a population of 137 per square kilometre (although much of Sweden's population is concentrated in the big cities). 
 
But Tegnell argued that the coronavirus crisis had revealed deeper cultural differences between the two countries than expected. 
 
“There’s a bigger difference between Sweden and Denmark in many ways than we thought,” he said. “We speak nearly the same language, we share a lot of history and culture — but we have different social systems, and there are differences in the way the population reacts.” 
 
He said it was difficult to judge at present, but that his feeling was that Denmark's government had acted too rapidly and  heavy handedly.
 
“From a Swedish perspective, it looks like you are reacting a  little too quickly,” he told DR.  “We will see, after all this has finished, who comes out best.”
 
 

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