The Swedish Left Failed the Vulnerable During the Pandemic

Sweden’s “hands-off” COVID-19 response was hailed by libertarians abroad but also by most left-wingers at home. Far from enlightened, the Swedish left’s approach combined deference to authority with a disturbing faith in national exceptionalism.

Three nurses carry COVID-19 vaccines through the hallways of a nursing home in Gothenburg, Sweden, on January 7, 2021. (Fredrik Lerneryd / Getty Images)

“When the next pandemic comes knocking — and it will — we must be ready to answer decisively, collectively, and equitably,” World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a packed assembly in Geneva on May 25. He made his remarks twenty days after the WHO stopped classifying the COVID-19 pandemic as a global health emergency.

As we enter this new phase of the pandemic and survey the destruction the SARS-CoV-2 virus has wrought on global health and livelihoods over the past three years, we are left with more questions than answers. Many of these questions have serious implications for how we react to threats to our collective existence going forward, with the realities of our age of chronic crisis becoming clearer with each passing year, as heat records are broken, wildfires ravage the landscape and choke our air, and the environment progressively becomes more hostile to human life on this planet.

In this context, figuring out the most effective ways for us to face shared crisis together, in solidarity, is arguably one of the most important tasks that the global left faces. Here, the infamous case of the Swedish response to the pandemic stands as a stark example — and a cautionary tale. How did a country ruled by a social democratic party, supported by the Left Party in parliament, and nominally committed to legislating egalitarian and proworker policies end up being the poster child for an approach to the pandemic based on mass infection and natural herd immunity — an approach which left the working class and marginalized segments of society to fend for themselves as a deadly and unknown virus swept through the population?

The Swedish pandemic response stands as a testament to the folly of basing our responses to global crises primarily on domestic political considerations, as well as to the danger that leftist movements become unmoored from their own basic values and principles.

The Right Embraces Sweden

For many left-wingers in Sweden with international connections, the pandemic has been a surreal experience. In the early months, we waited for the Swedish Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) and high-profile voices on the Left to put pressure on the government and the Public Health Agency to change course from their plan to allow the vast majority of the population to be infected in order to gain supposed “herd immunity” prior to the arrival of vaccines.

Instead, the Swedish left — with a few notable exceptions — embraced the herd immunity approach and joined in attacking critics of the government’s pandemic response. As the months wore on and the toll of this pandemic strategy became clear, the Swedish left’s stance inexplicably became more entrenched. At the same time Sweden was becoming a darling of the far right, an example that pervaded antimask and antilockdown protests globally.

Repeatedly, the international radical right has praised Sweden’s handling of the pandemic and held it up as a model for other countries to follow. Brazil’s right-wing, authoritarian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis, and Donald Trump’s former pandemic advisor Scott Atlas are just a few of the many right-wingers who have praised Sweden’s response.

The same is true for libertarian, neoliberal, and neoconservative think tanks such as the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), the Cato Institute, and the Brownstone Institute. These bodies that otherwise like to rail against climate policies and economic redistribution have often held up the Swedish approach as a shining exemplar of pandemic policy, using it to criticize proactive policies of infection control.

Indeed, the authors of that most notorious right-wing pandemic manifesto, the Great Barrington Declaration, drafted at the AIER headquarters in 2020, were deeply influenced by Sweden’s pandemic approach. The Swedish American epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff, who later left his professorship at Harvard University for a job at the newly established libertarian think tank the Brownstone Institute, wrote to Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell in May 2020, thanking him for Sweden’s “wise and epidemiologically sound COVID-19 work”, which he called a “model for the rest of the world.” Similarly, the Indian American epidemiologist Jay Bhattacharya, another Great Barrington Declaration initiator who also advised against mass vaccination in India prior to the deadly Delta outbreak in early 2021, has repeatedly praised the Swedish COVID-19 strategy on Twitter. More recently, he has campaigned for Ron DeSantis in his bid for the US presidency.

Neoliberal Foundations

There are many reasons why the international radical right has been enamored with the Swedish pandemic response. The Swedish authorities’ skepticism towards face masks, their reluctance to introduce basic infection control measures, and their resistance to the closure of private businesses (though some public establishments, including high schools and universities, were closed in Sweden, a fact that is rarely highlighted in Sweden or abroad) have naturally curried favor with the Right. The Swedish response, incorrectly described in some circles as a success story, has been a useful example for those opposing state-led contagion control measures.

But there is also a deeper ideological affinity between the Swedish approach and the global right, indeed one that precedes the pandemic.  In an award-winning journal article, Swedish researchers Carl Rådestad and Oscar Larsson have traced the unfolding neoliberalization of Swedish crisis management since the 1990s. They note that an ever-greater share of responsibility has been placed on the shoulders of individuals in a process they term “responsibilization,” as individuals have been “expected to take responsibility for their own safety.”

Swedish authorities have sought to justify such individualization of responsibility on the grounds that it can free up public resources. But it must also be seen in the context of a broader effort to shed some of the state’s former responsibilities. As French philosopher Émilie Hache has pointed out, the concept of personal responsibility is a key element of neoliberalism and has repeatedly been invoked in Western countries to justify attempts to scale back the state’s responsibilities.

During the pandemic, talk of personal responsibility had a prominent place in official Swedish rhetoric on the pandemic response. Public bodies insisted time and time again that the SARS-CoV-2 contagion should be handled, not through TTI (testing, tracing, and isolation), improved ventilation, quarantining of the sick, the introduction of a pandemic app, or other measures that could be carried out under the state’s auspices, but rather through the voluntary compliance of individuals with the authorities’ infection control advice.

When Britta Björkholm, head of the Department of Contagion Control and Public Health Protection at the Public Health Agency, was asked in April 2021 why the agency did not put more measures in place despite a growing number of COVID-19 cases and escalating pressure on the health services, she answered that it had chosen to rely on informing and convincing the public. In her view, voluntary compliance with public infection control advice “has the absolutely greatest effect.” In the spirit of neoliberal crisis management, a collective, systemic crisis was to be managed through private efforts.

From a left-wing perspective, this is obviously deeply problematic. To claim that protection from a deadly contagion is a matter of personal responsibility is to seek to individualize a collective problem, while willfully ignoring those members of society who are unable to protect themselves and others. A solidarity-based pandemic approach would have emphasized society’s shared responsibility to protect vulnerable and exposed people. But in Sweden, the Social Democratic/Green coalition government delegated responsibility for people’s lives and health to individual citizens — that is, people who faced very different socioeconomic conditions and had wildly divergent abilities to protect themselves and others.

As has been amply documented, the Swedish authorities made matters worse by designing their infection control advice with the white-collar middle class in mind — a group who could generally work from home and who were socially less exposed to the virus anyway. Infection control advice such as work from home if you can, stay at home if you have symptoms, and keep a distance from others was far easier for those who were not required to be physically present for work, who had flexible working hours, lived in more spacious homes, and did not work in a service profession.

Journalist Martin Klepke of the left-wing newspaper Arbetet has in a number of articles pointed out the overwhelmingly middle-class bias of the Swedish pandemic strategy. Swedish workers, he has noted, were thrown under the bus when the infection control advice issued by the Public Health Agency completely failed to take their professional and social situation into account. For example, while others could work from home or avoid crowded public transport by travelling outside of rush-hour periods, many workers had to commute to work on poorly ventilated, jam-packed public transportation. This happened even as the Public Health Agency urged people to keep a distance — but refused to mandate or even recommend mitigation measures like face masks.

This deeply inequitable pandemic approach has left telltale black marks in the statistics. As of June 2022, 1 in 621 Swedes had died from COVID-19, according to statistics from the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare. The same figure for Swedes with personal assistance was 1 in 169. Today’s figures are unknown, since the National Board of Health and Welfare has stopped publishing the statistics.

Meanwhile, several reports have documented that foreign-born people and blue-collar workers have been at greatest risk of dying from COVID-19. For instance, a report from the Center for Epidemiology and Community Medicine concluded in November 2020 that “income is the socioeconomic factor most clearly associated with the risk of dying from COVID-19.”

Neoliberal Pandemic Management on the Swedish Left

Despite the deeply problematic aspects of the country’s pandemic response, the Swedish left has generally refrained from criticizing it. Klepke and a handful of others are the only left-wingers of note who have questioned it.

In fact, not only has the Swedish left refused to criticize the country’s pandemic strategy, but prominent left-wingers have heaped praise on it. Karin Rågsjö, the Left Party’s public health policy spokesperson, called state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell a “bureaucrat with the halo of a hero.” Left Party member of parliament Hanna Gunnarsson unironically tweeted “All power to Tegnell, our liberator,” a reference to a children’s book by Astrid Lindgren, where Tengil, a bloodthirsty dictator, is hailed as a liberator by his deferential subjects. Lena Mellin, a political pundit for Sweden’s largest left-wing newspaper Aftonbladet called Tegnell “the Swedish people’s guide to the galaxy,” while another journalist at the same newspaper described him as “a hero in an adventure movie.” Another columnist in Aftonbladet wrote a sexually charged adoring piece, which mused on Tegnell’s “wonderful torso . . . his flat bust,” and the author’s own love of “academic men with colored sweaters on top of long-sleeved shirts,” a reference to Tegnell’s usual attire. The political editor-in-chief of Aftonbladet, Anders Lindberg, has missed few opportunities to praise Sweden’s handling of the pandemic on the pages of his social democratic newspaper, while accusing critics of being conspiracy theorists for correctly pointing out that the pandemic strategy aimed to achieve an imagined herd immunity through natural infection, which Tegnell himself has admitted.

Why has the Swedish left celebrated a pandemic response that has been explicitly based on the neoliberal principle of personal responsibility and has systematically disregarded marginal and vulnerable groups?

One explanation lies in the personal ties between the Left Party and the Public Health Agency. In a remarkable conflict of interest, the party’s health spokesperson Karin Rågsjö was also employed by the Public Health Agency (she was on a leave of absence for her political work and ended her employment with the Public Health Agency in April 2021). In disclosed emails between Rågsjö and her colleagues at the Public Health Agency, Rågsjö repeatedly showered praise on the agency for its handling of the pandemic and on occasion had very harsh words for critics. It is obviously problematic that the person who represented the Left Party line on pandemic policy was also employed by the government agency in charge of that same response.

Second, in Sweden during the pandemic there has been the rise of a brand of left-wing or progressive nationalism. Swedish political scientist Gina Gustavsson has noted that support for Sweden’s pandemic response has had a strong nationalist dimension and has often been couched in rhetoric of national exceptionalism. The cult of Anders Tegnell, with its bizarre manifestations including fawning articles, tattoos, food, clothing, and even Christmas decorations depicting an angelic Tegnell, is part and parcel of this nationalist outpouring that has helped to solidify support for the Public Health Agency among leftists.

Finally, in Sweden the pandemic was initially portrayed less as an acute and unprecedented public health threat than as a crisis of distrust in the authorities. Many left-wing Swedes had fresh memories of the disinformation that had occurred during the election of Donald Trump as US president and the Brexit debate in the UK in 2016 and came to view deference to the Public Health Agency — which was widely perceived as a nonpolitical expert state body — as a means of guarding against such politicized disinformation. Conversely, people who criticized the Public Health Agency’s handling of the pandemic were described as behaving irresponsibly and even harmfully, and representing a threat to national security. For many progressive Swedes, refraining from criticizing the Public Health Agency was regarded as a public duty — even though the agency was pursuing a deeply ideological pandemic policy.

As a result of this deference to the Public Health Agency, the Swedish left has, by and large, ended up on the same side of the global pandemic debate as Trump, Bolsonaro, Nigel Farage, the AIER, the Cato Institute, and other representatives of the far right globally, whose positions on the pandemic also aligned with those of the Swedish Public Health Agency. Swedish leftists have adopted much the same stances on face masks, legal restrictions on businesses, and other proactive infection control measures as the global radical right, not because of any ideological kinship with the latter but because they uncritically decided to throw in their lot with the Swedish Public Health Agency.

A Lesson for Future (and Present) Collective Crisis

As we sink further into the age of collective crisis, and before the next pandemic breaks out, it is instructive to review the failures of the Swedish left during the COVID-19 pandemic. What lessons can the Left in Sweden and elsewhere learn from these failures for next time?

One important lesson is that the Left needs to orient itself internationally in the event of a global, collective crisis. During the pandemic, many people on the Left in Sweden seemed unaware that the Swedish handling of the pandemic was seen as a model by neoliberals, libertarians, and other groups on the far right globally. Instead, the Swedish left positioned itself entirely in relation to domestic concerns, making no attempt to build a common international left-wing platform on the pandemic with leftists abroad, let alone pursue common practical solutions to the crisis.

Conversely, leftists elsewhere failed to take Swedish leftists to task for their support for a neoliberal pandemic response that became the poster child for right-wing attempts to torpedo infection control in other countries. Vocal criticism from international and foreign leftist groups would have forced the Swedish left to look outward and possibly made them more inclined to review their support for the Swedish pandemic response. Yet the Left around the world, mirroring the mistakes of the Swedish left, also turned inward during the pandemic, engaging primarily in domestic debates.

In the case of future pandemics and other collective crises (such as the climate crisis), left-wingers around the world need to recognize their shared responsibility for combating them and mobilize internationally around common goals. They need to pause and consider how best to translate basic left-wing principles, such as community and solidarity, into practical policies and find ways to work more effectively together internationally.

Hopefully, the mistakes of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sweden can provide a point of reflection and a cautionary tale going forward. If the global left fails to root itself in basic leftist principles and an international outlook based on solidarity — choosing instead to position itself in relation to parochial domestic political battles — there is no future for a global leftist movement in the coming age of chronic crisis.