Sweden, unlike the United States and many other countries, has largely stayed open for business. Pandemic experts have criticized this approach, combining a handful of restrictions with strong recommendations for risk groups and anyone feeling sick to self-isolate, and voluntary social distancing for everyone else.
So why does Swedish public opinion continue to show not just high but increasing levels of support?
As of April 30, Sweden ranked among the 10 countries in the world with the highest covid-19 deaths per million people, with a ratio of 244. This is seven times more than neighboring Finland and Norway. While an essential part of Sweden’s strategy was to cocoon the elderly, two-thirds of the nursing homes in Stockholm are now infected. Estimates of 10,000-20,000 deaths are no longer off the table.
Private citizens have flooded the head offices of Sweden’s Public Health Agency with flowers. Trust in the agency has risen to 73 percent, in fact. In one month, trust for the government has increased by 23 percentage points.
The face of chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell adorns coffee mugs and T-shirts. This is the man who gives daily updates on the number of deaths in Swedish television.
Can trust explain why Swedes are so supportive of Sweden’s coronavirus response despite the relatively high death rate? Swedish authorities and academics have repeatedly reminded everyone that Swedes trust each other, and they trust their institutions. But so do Danes, Norwegians and Canadians—and those countries responded more forcefully to the pandemic threat.
What we are witnessing in Sweden is more likely to be the dark side of nationalism.
Like any group identity, national identity is a powerful force. In a recent research article, I argue that when self-critical and based on a shared public culture, nationalism can legitimately be liberal or even progressive in nature. But when it takes the form of blind allegiance, nationalism becomes a danger to liberal democracy.
High pride can turn into blind faith, if not balanced by a commitment to national self-critique. Scholars call this critical or constructive patriotism. When the coronavirus crisis escalated, I therefore examined Swedish attitudes to this, using the most recent data available (2013).
Sweden has the lowest number of critical patriots out of all the 33 countries included in this survey, which covers nationally representative samples from Europe, America and Asia (and South Africa). Only 6 percent of Swedes agree strongly that “the world would be a better place if Swedes acknowledged Sweden’s shortcomings.” Although another 30 percent agree with the statement, this is still less than in Hungary or Russia.
Swedes have gotten used to international praise for their welfare state, solidarity with refugees and climate change activism. In the ISSP survey from 2013 they also express stronger pride in their democracy than people in many other stable democracies. Now, suddenly, international experts and media from abroad suggest Swedish citizens might be reckless and callous.
This situation is likely to have triggered a national identity threat in the minds of many Swedes. This comes in addition to the health and safety threats already posed by the virus itself and the concomitant economic crisis.
Critics of the Swedish pandemic strategy meet with hostility and ridicule, both in academia and the media. Vulnerable minorities might be next in line. Ex-chief epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, for instance, pinned the failure to protect the elderly on immigrants. “Many of the people working in nursing homes are from other countries, they are refugees or asylum seekers,” he explained. They “may not always be understanding the information.”
Wounded national pride, it may turn out, is a disease that Swedes, however rational, are no more immune to than anyone else.
Gina Gustavsson is an associate professor at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, and an associate member of Nuffield College, University of Oxford.