Coronavirus crisis: Sweden failed to protect residents in care homes
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Coronavirus crisis: Sweden failed to protect residents in care homes

Sweden's Prime-Minister Stefan Löfven speaking to the nation on the crisis, 22 November, © Fredrik Ståhl/Regeringskansliet

A report published on Tuesday holds the Swedish government accountable for the structural problems in the retirement homes that resulted in the high number of COVID-19 related deaths among the elderly in the country.

The public commission of inquiry, the so-called Corona Commission, was appointed in late June to evaluate the measures taken by the government and the relevant authorities on municipal, regional and national level to contain the spread the of the corona virus. Its first report, focusing on the situation in retirement and care homes, delivers scathing critique against the government.

The government assumed that the system put in place to take care of elderly people in retirement homes would function during a pandemic and that there was hardly any need for extra measures or coordination at central level. The management of the crisis was delegated, as in normal times, to the Public Health Authority, with its chief state epidemiologist setting the tone.

According to the report, the responsibility to handle the crisis is shared by several actors on different levels but the government has the final responsibility. Both the current and previous governments knew about the problems in the elderly care.

“It’s the government which rules the country and therefore is responsible. It should have taken measures to better prepare the elderly care for the pandemic,” said Mats Melin, chair of the inquiry and a senior legal official and former chief Ombudsman. “The measures taken came too late and were also inadequate.”

The latest figures (15 December) show that about 90 % of the total fatalities – 6914 of 7667 – were 70 or older and more than half of them were living in care homes where staff was often insufficient or lacked training.

The final report is due in February 2022 but the interim report confirms previous reports in media about the shortcomings at the retirement and care homes. Managed by municipalities or private companies, with insufficient protective equipment and untrained staff, no-one in Sweden had an overview of the situation.

In an article in October in Dagens Nyheter, investigative journalist Maciej Zaremba interviewed responsible politicians and officials in the Stockholm Region. He disclosed that the guidance issued by the regional health care body during the first wave of the coronavirus deprived elderly people at care homes of their right to an individual medical assessment and hospital treatment.

Another report last November by the Health and Care Inspectorate (IVO) found that residents at care homes in all 21 regions of Sweden did not receive care and treatment according to their individual needs. In up to 20 % of the cases, the assessment was not done by a physician.

In the majority of cases where the advice of a physician was asked, it was done by phone without the physician having seen the patient. Relatives were not informed or consulted about the treatment which often excluded hospital treatment and consisted of palliative care which might have had the opposite effect.

Stefan Löfven, the Swedish Prime-Minister, agreed that the elderly care in the country was unprepared for the pandemic and that it has to become much stronger. He promised that that the lessons learned from the findings in the report would be drawn but was reluctant to admit any responsibility on behalf of his government.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times