Is Sweden the canary in the coal mine ?

Sentinel species - canary in the coal mine

Yesterday, I said I would move to Sweden rather than be forced into shielded lockdown as an “old and vulnerable“ person until a vaccine is discovered. This is ostensibly in 12-18 months time, according to scientists, but a vaccine may not be discovered during my natural lifetime.

I have visited Sweden on three occasions. The first time was about 55 years ago as an 18 year old student, pursuing my first love, Pia. She was our ex “au pair” from Denmark, who my parents sacked when they discovered we were getting too close. Naturally, I was furious with my parents, and during the school summer holiday of 1964 I think, I travelled to Copenhagen to find her.

Her parents told me she was at the family holiday home in the south of Sweden, so undaunted, I tracked her down, only to find that she was engaged and her fiancé was not very happy about me turning up. Needless to say, I was not invited to stay very long, but through friends,  they did somehow find me a holiday job in a computer factory. Can’t remember where I stayed – with the friends I guess.  I worked there for 3 weeks or so and earned enough money to visit Oland, an island off Sweden, and to return to Edinburgh by train, with more money in my pocket than when I left.

The second visit to Sweden was on a baltic cruise in 2015 ,when Stockholm was one of the ports of call. The Ship only docked there for about 6 hours and it was pouring with rain, but we saw as much of the old town as we could including the state opening of parliament. We also visited the Vasa museum ( when the rain became torrential. As Stockholm was so scenic, we vowed to come back sometime to fully explore the city and its environs.  

The third visit was a city break to Stockholm in May 2018. This was a six day break, when we full covered every aspect of this beautiful city and beyond.

Anyway, back to the question of the day – Is Sweden the canary in the coal mine ?

This of course refers to the former practice of taking caged canaries into coal mines to test for the presence of methane or carbon monoxide. The birds would die if either gas was present , and thereby alert miners to the danger. A cage of canaries is still kept in the Big Pit museum, National Coal Museum here in South Wales.

Sweden ambassador: Stockholm could reach herd immunity by May

Sweden has taken a controversial approach to the coronavirus pandemic, imposing fewer restrictions than neighbours.

People have lunch at a restaurant in Stockholm amid the coronavirus pandemic [Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP]
People have lunch at a restaurant in Stockholm amid the coronavirus pandemic [Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP]

The crux of Sweden’s strategy is voluntary social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus , which is widely backed by the public, with 90% compliance. There is no lockdown. Schools for under 16 year olds, bars and restaurants remain open, but usage of public transport has dropped significantly, and large numbers of people work from home. The government has banned gatherings of over 50 people and visits to care homes.

Sweden’s deputy prime minister, Isabella Lovin, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that measures that were too harsh could not be sustained over time. “We set out from the start that this was not going to be a sprint, this is going to be a marathon.”

“To a great part, we have been able to achieve what we set out to achieve,” says state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. “Swedish healthcare keeps on working, basically with a lot of stress, but not in a way that they turn patients away.” There is still space in intensive care units and a new field hospital at a former conference venue is yet to be used.

In contrast with other countries where political leaders have fronted the national response to the crisis, Dr Tegnell has led the majority of news conferences.His tone is typically matter of fact, with a strong focus on figures, and few mentions of the emotional impact of the crisis on victims and their families. This is in contrast to the UK daily Press briefings, where Ministers and Advisors try to sound sympathetic and emotional, constantly using the prefix “sadly” whenever deaths are reported.

Lifting the Lockdown

Many countries around the world with severe Covid-19 outbreaks are now facing difficult decisions on how and when to ease lockdown restrictions. Other countries with less serious outbreaks have started to relax restrictions eg The opening on Bondi Beach in Australia today.

Sweden of course does NOT have this problem, which is the huge benefit of their approach. Their Health care system has survived, and there has not been a major disruption of non-Covid 19 health services such as cancer care, coronary and stroke emergencies. This has caused significant numbers of indirect deaths resulting from Lockdowns in other countries .

So, Is Sweden the canary in the coal mine ? Yes probably, but  it is too early to tell. The jury remains out. I think we need to find cages for the German canary and the South Korean canary, or perhaps an aviary may be. needed.

Sweden – other sources :

‘Myth that Sweden has not taken serious steps’ ‘Myth’ that Sweden has not taken ‘serious steps’

Posted at1:2825 Apr

Has Sweden got its coronavirus science right?

Maddy Savage

BBC News, Stockholm

The strategy devised by scientists was to keep large parts of society open but not everyone is convinced.Read morePosted at15:3724 Apr

Swedish strategy largely working – epidemiologist’s strategy is largely working – chief epidemiologist

Anders Tegnell of Sweden’s Public Health Agency accepts the death toll is high.

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