Sweden: How much risk is ‘lagom’?

After 12 months and two pandemic waves, there are two drivers that can help to understand what stands behind the “Swedish approach”. These two drivers are maintaining 1) trust in the expert intuitions by reassuring confidence in the strategy being defined and 2) social contract built on two centuries living without war.  

The Swedish national strategy to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic has generally been defined by trusting its people to voluntarily follow the protocols. Now that the second wave has struck the country with even greater severity than the first one, the government and the health authorities have found themselves under hard criticism for the choice and the implementation of this strategy. While from the outside it might seem that the calls for a lockdown are rising, on the inside the view gets reduced to the SMS that all of us living in Sweden have received on Monday.

In the SMS, to stop the spread of covid-19, the authorities appeal to everyone to follow the advice given on the crisis information web site: Krisinformation.com. In other words, the message states that the government and the authorities are committed to following the same strategy from the beginning of the pandemic. They continue to “have ice in their stomach,” as Anders Tegnell, the most visible face of the “Swedish way” to deal with the pandemic, stated some months ago when asked whether he considered that Sweden was acting more rationally whereas other nations had acted emotionally while managing the Covid19 crises. In his words, Sweden showed having “ice in its stomach,” which was needed because “you need to believe in the long-term effects of what you’re doing and not starting to doubt them too early”.

After spending a few minutes to go over other SMS’s received on that same day (mostly commercial advertisement and reminders of some appointments), I went into Krisinformation.com where I could read:  

As of 14 December, stricter national regulations and general advice come into force about everyone’s responsibility to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Everyone in society, both individuals and business operators, has an obligation to take measures to prevent the spread of infection. This also applies to celebrating festive occasions.

With over 320,000 informed cases and nearly 8.000 deaths, there is no much evidence to support the ‘hope’ Tegnell expressed in September that “the immunity in the population will help us get thought this fall with cases at a low level.” A few nights ago, in a live interview given to the Swedish TV4, while visibly and understandably stressed, his most repeated answers contained “It is hard to know”.

True experts confess the limits of their knowledge (Daniel Kahneman). They do so, not only out of humbleness but also out of admitting that ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’. The force and velocity that the Covid19 has exhibited have caught everyone unprepared. Even the most expert scientists have lacked the means and words to cope with it. The pandemic has once more proven that nature and words are learned together, as Kuhn had well advised. We are still building the dictionary to help us interpret the events from these past 12 months. Part of this process should be the understanding that this is not about governments and strategies competing with each other. And if it were, it would be a long league and not a single-match eliminatory.

Swedish authorities have chosen to “have ice in the stomach” and long term vision. This led to a strategy that relied on a combination of legal and voluntary measures. This naturally implied taking greater risks. But, when all the options available are bad, humans seek risk (Kahneman), and the “Swedish approach” followed the same.

The risk assessment is fundamental in any choice of strategy. It defines the election of the measure (Kahneman). Therefore, if the unit of achievement is the problem solved (Thomas Kunh) than no government has been successful. All countries have paid a high price while the problem remains. The covid-19 is still among us, and it has one more proven Peter Drucker to be right when claiming that the culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Strategies are generally conditioned by the risk assessment, which at the same time, is linked to the expectation and preference to determined results. As such, the definition of risk is an exercise of power (Paul Slavic), and power within the Swedish context is much more multidirectional than the top-down vertical expression. It emerges from a long tradition of consensus-based decision making where the plurality of voices gives authority to the decisions being made.

This is where lies the second reason for understanding the “Swedish approach” of dealing with the pandemic.

To understand why Sweden is the only European country that hasn’t imposed stricter lockdown measures, one must consider the historical context. The often criticized ’culture of conformity’ and the highest regard for individual freedom are part of the social contract that steers the Swedish society’s power relations. But this is just a small portion of a very complex social structure that has been built within a unique context.

Immensely few other countries have been enjoying over 200 years of uninterrupted peace (Sweden’s last war was the Swedish–Norwegian War in 1814). And there stands the second driver behind the “Swedish approach”.  As the SVT well explains, Sweden has not been in a war or crisis situation for a long time and therefore does not have any exceptional legislation such as a lockdown.  

For more than two centuries, no single Swedish government had imposed exceptional measures that order individuals how to act. There were no impositions to control collective discipline and make individuals obey the rules being driven by extraordinary situations, crises, or wars.

Although this time staying neutral was not among the options, despite its gravity, Coronavirus could not push Swedish culture into the ‘exceptional’ . It could not move it beyond the ‘lagom’, this unique expression of ‘Swedishness’, which means neither too much nor too little but ‘just the right amount’. It is the ultimate unit of achievement that the Swedish society will use to evaluate the success or failure of the “Swedish approach” strategy. Once the pandemic is over, it will assess if the strategy had achieved, providing the ‘lagom’ of social distancing.

In the meantime, it is “ice in the stomach” and the occasional SMS that will keep on steering the management of the pandemic in the hope that the appeal on social distancing will sink into the culture that no longer seems to reach the consensus over how much risk is ‘lagom’.

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