Sweden continues to examine its handling of the pandemic and decides on booster vaccination

Sweden continues to examine its handling of the pandemic and decides on booster vaccination
Old city, Stockholm, credit: Unsplash/Jon Flobrant

A report published on Friday concludes that Sweden’s handling of the pandemic has been marked by a slowness of response which was insufficient to stop or even substantially limit the spread of the virus in the country during the first waves.

The public commission of inquiry, the so-called Corona Commission, was appointed in June 2020 to evaluate the measures taken by the government and the relevant authorities on municipal, regional and national levels to contain the spread of the corona virus. The final report will be published on 25 February 2022.

Its first interim report was published in December last year and focused on the situation in retirement and care homes.  It delivered scathing critique against the government for the structural problems in the retirement homes that resulted in the high number of COVID-19 related death among the elderly in the country.

The second report focuses on first two waves of the virus. The path chosen by Sweden placed the emphasis on disease prevention and control measures based on recommendations and personal responsibility, rather than more intrusive interventions. Sweden differed at that juncture from its Nordic neighbours and many other countries. For a summary in English of the findings, click here.

As in other countries, Sweden’s pandemic preparedness was inadequate. But the situation was aggravated by inadequate legislation on communicable diseases to respond to a serious epidemic or pandemic outbreak.

Sweden’s system of communicable disease prevention and control was and is decentralised and fragmented in a way that makes it unclear who has overall responsibility when the country is hit by a serious infectious disease. The government did not to take control and assumed that the existing decentralised system with independent agencies was fit for the task to handle a pandemic.

The leading role in combating the pandemic was assumed by the Public Health Agency and its chief state epidemiologist, who soon built up a track record of being reluctant to accept criticism or consider findings that ran against his own views.

The virus probably spread to Sweden as a result of people travelling, chiefly from Italy and Austria, during the winter sport holiday in the last week of February in 2020. No border controls were put in place. Once the virus had reached Sweden, it spread rapidly in the country. There was no contact tracing whatsoever in the beginning.

In its response to the pandemic, Sweden tried to avoid lockdowns, not only because the existing legal framework did not allow compulsory measures but also because their impact on the economy and mental health. The Corona Commission looked also at the indirect consequences of the pandemic, such as the price of social isolation and the effects of remote and distance learning.

While the reports are in-depth and carried out in real time, it is too early to predict the political consequences. The lack of pandemic preparedness and the systemic shortcomings were the fault of several governments. The first reaction of the current government was to accept the findings but to excuse itself.

“If you were to sit in a situation where you knew everything you know today, it is clear that you could act differently,” said social minister Lena Hallengren (Social Democrats) yesterday (29 October).

The Swedish Public Health Agency has already changed course on the need for booster vaccination. The day before the publication of the report, it announced that it recommends that all people who are 65 and older and staff at retirement homes and in home health care services will be offered a third booster dose. In September it issued a similar recommendation for people above the age of 80.

According to the agency, there is evidence which shows clearly that the effect of the vaccine is decreasing by time. The agency will publish its scientific evidence during next week.

The rollout of the third dose will be carried out in phases by the regional authorities and is expected to continue until Spring next year.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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