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Commission says Sweden failed to protect elderly during COVID-19 pandemic

A street sign in southern Sweden bears Christmas greetings and a reminder to practice social distancing
A street sign in Helsingborg in southern Sweden bears Christmas greetings and a reminder to practice social distancing.
(Johan Nilsson / TT News Agency)

Sweden’s government failed to sufficiently protect the elderly in care homes from COVID-19 and is ultimately responsible for the pandemic’s effects in the country, according to a stinging official report released Tuesday.

The Scandinavian country has stood out among European and other nations for the way it has handled the pandemic, for long not mandating lockdowns like others but relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty.

But an independent commission that looked into Sweden’s handling of the pandemic said Tuesday that the nation’s elderly care has major structural shortcomings and authorities proved unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic. Nearly half the country’s COVID-19 deaths have been in care homes.

The head of the commission, Mats Melin, said the blame for structural shortcomings in Sweden’s healthcare system could be placed on several authorities and organizations.

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“But we still want to say that the government governs the country and that the ultimate responsibility therefore rests with the government and previous governments,” Melin said.

While Swedish authorities reacted to the pandemic by advising people to practice social distancing, most schools, bars and restaurants have been kept open.

Yet, the country of just over 10 million people has seen 341,029 confirmed infections and 7,667 virus-related deaths, a death toll much higher than in neighboring Norway, Finland or Denmark.

As intensive care units fill up and the death toll mounts, the Swedish government is mulling tougher measures to combat the coronavirus.

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Despite Sweden having one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s government and chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell have defended the controversial coronavirus strategy as sustainable in the long term. They have, however, admitted failures in their efforts to protect the elderly and nursing home residents.

Tuesday’s commission report says Sweden’s Nordic neighbors paid more attention to elderly citizens’ care during the pandemic.

“In the other Nordic countries ... care for the elderly seems to have been more in focus in the authorities’ early pandemic measures,” the report says.

Sweden’s strategy had also been expected to spare the country a resurgence of the disease this fall, but earlier Tuesday, Lofven said health officials misjudged the impact of the latest wave of the pandemic.

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“I think that most people in the profession didn’t see such a wave in front of them, they talked about different clusters,” the prime minister told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.

Sweden has seen a rapid increase in new coronavirus infections that has strained its healthcare system. The virus has spread quickly among medical staff, pushing the government to back more restrictions, including a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. in bars and restaurants.

The government has also imposed its tightest coronavirus restrictions to date by banning public gatherings of more than eight people.


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