Sweden: Academics protest against ‘fatal’ changes to Aliens Act

Seems counterproductive to make it harder for highly-skilled PhDs to transition to permanent residency:

Changes to the Aliens Act in Sweden, which impose onerous self-sufficiency requirements on international doctoral students and researchers and require them to leave the country to apply for Swedish residence permits for family members – even those born in Sweden – have been denounced by academic stakeholders.

The legislation was enacted after a heated discussion in parliament in June 2021.

Online magazine Universitetsläraren has identified several researchers that have had to travel as far afield as Asia to apply for visas to travel with their families to neighbouring countries such as Denmark or Germany. “With the COVID situation the travel can be very lengthy,” said researchers who did not want to disclose their identity.

Disruption

Erik Kvist, who is international coordinator at Lund University, said he and colleagues have been involved in similar cases where families have been uprooted from their work in Sweden to travel abroad, a process that can create problems at their workplaces and disrupts their lives.

Kvist said that in these cases the parents of the children are in Sweden on a valid residence permit. 

“The expulsion [out of the country] of a lone baby [without a permit] would be morally unacceptable, lead to great personal suffering and I am questioning how his can be related to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the right to private and family life according to the European Convention on Human Rights,” Kvist said.

“The contention that one should make an application before the newborn baby came to Sweden is an unjust demand when the child is born in Sweden,” he said.

According to the press officer for the Swedish Migration Agency, Annica Dahlqvist, no exemptions to the rules will be offered.

Pil Maria Saugmann, Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) representative and chairperson of the Doctoral Students’ Committee at SFS, told University World News that roughly 20% of doctoral students in Sweden are affected by the new legislation. “But it is maybe also important to mention that the issue digs deeper and affects post-docs and other early career researchers as well,” she said.

The legislation’s impact goes beyond having to travel outside the country to apply for permit applications.

Financial self-sufficiency

Since 2014, international doctoral students have been able to secure permanent residency after four years of doctoral studies. However, last year’s changes – introduced without a transition period – also make it necessary for international students and researchers to show they are financially self-sufficient, in other words, have a job, for a period of time, a period interpreted by the Swedish Migration Agency to be at least 18 months.

petition by the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), the Swedish National Union of Students’ Doctoral Students’ Committee (SFS-DK) and trade union Fackförbundet ST calling for a reversal of the legislation, notes that doctoral students and other early career researchers are very rarely offered such long-term contracts, whether employed by universities, private companies or the state. 

At the same time, those who hold a PhD degree are rarely unemployed and, if they are unemployed, it is usually only for a short time. 

“While the demand for their skills and expertise is high, their chances of being given a long-term contract are low during the first few years after graduation. The new permanent residency rules will create additional hurdles in their pursuit of long-term career development in Sweden. Hence, the new rules will also create a lose-lose situation for Sweden as a knowledge-based nation,” the petition, signed by almost 5,000 people, states.

‘Fatal consequences’

Adding her voice to criticisms of the legislation, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, president of Stockholm University, wrote in her blog on 23 September 2021 that the consequences of changes in the Aliens Act “risk becoming fatal for international doctoral students and junior researchers” and “threaten Sweden’s position as a prominent knowledge nation”.

She said the Swedish Migration Agency’s insistence on fixed-term employment for at least 18 months meant that doctoral students “can no longer count on completing their doctoral education in Sweden under reasonable conditions, while those with a newly earned doctor’s degree no longer have the opportunity to secure a multi-year post-doc or equivalent with the help of ‘bridge funding’ after the completion of their PhD”.

She called on parliament to introduce an exemption for doctoral students and junior researchers from the requirement to be financially self-sufficient in the narrow sense defined by the agency, saying: “All of Sweden’s higher education institutions agree.”

Speaking to University World News on behalf of the European Migration Network, migration expert Bernd Parusel said that for some time the main focus of migration policy in Sweden has been to limit the immigration of people seeking asylum and their family members. 

“It seems that this restrictive approach in Swedish migration policy has spilled over and affected other groups as well, even those that Sweden wants to attract and retain,” he said.

The call for changes to the new legislation continues, with the establishment of a Facebook page, “Intl PhD students in Sweden call for changes in permanent residency law”, which has so far attracted 2,300 members. 

SULF is also keeping the issue alive by arranging webinars on the topic and has set up a webpage hosting question-and-answer sessions and other information.

Source: Academics protest against ‘fatal’ changes to Aliens Act

Swedish tweets about immigration reveal new insights into polarization dynamics

Would love to see some comparative analysis with Canada, USA and other countries:

A computational analysis of more than 1 million Tweets from Swedish speakers has found little evidence for significant polarization within this network on the topic of immigration—even after Sweden’s 2015 refugee crisis. Elizaveta Kopacheva and Victoria Yantseva of Linnaeus University, Sweden, present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on February 9, 2022.

Social media platforms can enable grassroots activism and expose people to new ideas, but they can also create echo chambers and cause group . However, most research into polarization caused by social media has focused on political party support or membership, while neglecting a wider selection of social issues, such as immigration.

To broaden understanding, Kopacheva and Yantseva studied a network of Swedish speakers who discussed immigration on Twitter from 2012 to 2019. The research team applied analytical tools known as and natural-language processing to almost 1,200,000 tweets in order to explore the dynamics of interactions between active users in the network, and to quantify polarization in their sentiments regarding immigration.

This analysis revealed the development of different discussion communities within the network over time. However, despite immigration being thought of as a controversial topic, the researchers did not find significant evidence for polarization between users in the network and communities.

Moreover, polarization dynamics did not change significantly in the wake of the 2015 refugee crises, when an unprecedented number of asylum seekers came to Sweden, and the government struggled to adequately accommodate them. However, the researchers did note a shift in sentiment after the 2015 crisis, with users’ tweets becoming more negative in tone and a declining proportion of tweets having a neutral tone.

The authors discuss potential mechanisms that could underlie their findings and outline possible next steps. For instance, future research could incorporate more information on Twitter users’ behavior and consider less-active users, or it could examine the potential impact of Twitter’s 2017 expansion of the maximum-allowed length of each .

Overall, the researchers say, their findings could help clarify the potential role could play in reducing radicalization and right-wing populism.

The authors add: “We detected no permanent changes in the levels of polarization that could be directly attributed to the crisis, which applies both to the and community levels. Still, we saw a moderate but long-lasting shift towards a more negative tonality of users’ messages after the crisis and a declining share of neutral tweets.”

Source: Swedish tweets about immigration reveal new insights into polarization dynamics

Long suppressed and forcibly assimilated, Sámi people in Sweden get an apology 30 years in the making

Of interest and the influence of and parallel with Canadian experience:

In Uppsala Cathedral, the heart of Swedish Christianity, Archbishop Antje Jackelén sat this week before a circle of Sámi leaders in traditional dress and the television cameras of Sweden’s state broadcaster, listing the past crimes of her church.

“You have told us about forced Christianization and Swedish colonialism. Sámi culture was denied,” Jackelén said, in Swedish. “Today, we acknowledge this and, on behalf of the Church of Sweden, I apologize.”

Wednesday’s apology service in Uppsala, the culmination of more than 30 years of discussions and advocacy, marked a major step forward for reconciliation in Sweden, where the Indigenous Sámi people continue to fight for self-determination and recognition of past wrongs committed by church and state.

Having studied the Canadian experience of reconciliation, church and Sámi figures alike emphasized that the apology must be followed by concrete actions, and came with no expectation of forgiveness.

“As we apologize to you today, we cannot determine how you will receive this apology. It is not our place to demand to know when a response will be given,” Jackelén said in her speech.

“While we wait, we pray to God … that we do not repeat past mistakes.”

As one of its commitments, the church pledged to acknowledge the importance of Sámi spirituality, and even incorporate it into Christian worship after centuries of exclusion and demonization.

Ingrid Inga, the chair of the church’s internal Sámi Council, called it “the starting point of a new relationship between the Church of Sweden and the Sámi people.”

Crimes of assimilation

The Sámi are indigenous to the vast forests and tundra of Arctic Europe, traditionally herding reindeer, hunting and fishing across Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of northern Russia. For centuries, they have been divided by the borders of those countries, which all embarked on differing programs of forced assimilation.

Though the earliest Christian missionaries are believed to have visited Sápmi, the traditional territory of the Sámi, in the 11th century, Sámi say the church’s process of forced Christianization truly began some 500 years later, when the Reformation unified church and state.

In an 1,100-page anthology produced for the Church of Sweden in 2019 — seen as an essential precondition to the apology — historians documented the way the church supported the state in the process of erasing and suppressing Sámi identity.

Christian preachers condemned Sámi religion as devil worship, banning the joik, a form of spiritual singing used by noaidi, or Sámi shamans, to communicate with the spirit world.

The 17th century saw a wave of puritanical witch trials, in which Swedish church and state authorities waged an intense campaign against Sámi worship, which they branded as sorcery. One noaidi, Lars Nilsson, was burned at the stake, and many others were tried for witchcraft.

In pursuit of converts, the Swedish church produced the first writing in the Sámi languages, in translated bibles. But by the 20th century, it was actively suppressing the Sámi languages in church-run schools.

Reindeer herders were segregated to subpar “nomad schools,” which sought to “protect” them from civilization as an “inferior race.”

As in Canada, these church-run schools became theatres for humiliating scientific experiments and clerical abuse. Racial biologists also conspired with bishops to dig up the remains of Sámi children and elders — many of which still sit in museum collections across Europe.

Other Sámi, deemed not sufficiently nomadic by Swedish authorities, were forced to assimilate, driving divisions in the community that exist to this day.

Christianity an ‘Indigenous religion’

Yet today, many Sámi are still devoutly Christian. A 19th-century revival movement produced an Indigenous form of Lutheranism that transformed communities damaged by the suppression of traditional activities.

“Many Sámi think that Christianity is their Indigenous religion, because the Sámi have for centuries been dealing with Christianity,” said Helga West, a Sámi theologian who studies the reconciliation processes underway in the three Nordic countries. (Her Sámi name is Biennaš-Jon Jovnna Piera Helga.)

“Yet… there are many Sámi who don’t want to be involved with these churches at all.”

Thomas Colbengtson, originally from Tärnaby, was raised in the Lutheran Church and attended a nomad school. He says the experience left him with a “mixed feeling” about his own identity.

“In a way, you’ve got double guilt — guilt [for] being Sámi, guilt [for] being Swedish, guilt [for] perhaps not practising Christian religion, guilt [for] being Christian…. That’s the sensitive thing to talk about.”

In a former glass factory in the suburbs of Stockholm, Colbengtson wrestles with that tension as a Sámi artist. His most recent work, based on a noaidi drum, will be displayed near the altar of the Swedish church.

“Part of it is provocation,” he said, “and … part is to visualize Sámi presence in the area, and Sámi culture that [they have] tried to erase.”

Spiritual destruction — and renewal

Guided by the Canadian truth and reconciliation process, the church has largely focused on documenting historical wrongs. But West says it has not yet come to terms with how it has forever transformed Sámi spirituality.

“Christianity in general brought this hierarchical and linear view of the world that was very different from the Sámi cosmic vision, that was pluralistic,” she said. “They were forced to think differently of the world, of their ancestors, of their practices, that were labelled as pagan and backward.”

Some Christian Sámi have managed to reconcile these identities within themselves. Nilla and Nik Märak, two sisters from Jokkmokk, learned from their father, Johan, a renowned Sámi priest, who broke barriers by bringing joiking into the church for the first time.

“He used to say, ‘God was with the Sámi before the church,'” Nik said with a laugh.

“He knew that by … being a minister in the church, and bringing the two worlds together, he could, just by his presence, actually go quite a long way [toward] reconciliation,” Nilla said.

For Nilla, who handed out communion wafers at Wednesday’s service in Uppsala, the church’s recognition of past wrongs is an important step in and of itself.

“A huge part of reconciliation, and the healing that will come, we hope … is to realize that there has been damage done,” she said. “The Sámi religion has been damaged, and the Sámi soul has been damaged.”

Wednesday’s service included eight concrete commitments to reverse the historic erasure of Sámi culture, meant to counter early perceptions among Sámi that public apologies, like those in Canada, would be merely performative.

Among them are pledges to preach in the Sámi language, educate congregations about past crimes and make Sámi traditions a more visible part of Christian worship.

“I hope that the Sámi people really trust the Church of Sweden, that it’s for real, that we want Sámi spirituality as part of the church,” said Bishop Åsa Nyström, whose Luleå diocese covers the northernmost third of Sweden and includes many Sámi communities. “It is so important the Sámi people can have priests and deacons … from their own people.”

State absent

Some say there is still more the church could do. Northern dioceses like Nyström’s derive income from vast forests they manage. But Åsa Larsson Blind, vice-president of the transnational Saami Council, says they do not pursue international certifications that would require co-management with the Sámi.

To critics, the greatest shortcoming of Wednesday’s church apology may be that the Swedish government was nowhere to be seen.

“It’s only the church doing the work,” said Nilla Märak. “The Swedish government is doing nothing. They’re barely even recognizing that there is a need for a reconciliation process.”

Many of the crimes documented by the church were committed in service of a colonizing Swedish state, which sought to push Sámi people off profitable land and divide them with borders.

Yet the state’s own reconciliation process has barely begun. First discussed more than 15 years ago, the Swedish government only this month announced a truth commission, which will be focused primarily on fact-finding over its four-year mandate.

“It’s very, very important, but it isn’t a reconciliation process,” said Nyström.

Meanwhile, the Swedish government continues to fight Sámi reindeer herders in court for the right to build mines and power plants on their lands. It has refused to ratify international conventions recognizing the rights of Indigenous people.

A landmark Supreme Court decision in the Sámi village of Girjas appears to have established a duty to consult with Sámi people. But the government continues to interpret it narrowly.

“They are dodging the whole issue,” said Larsson Blind. “And by not addressing the issues, they are letting business as usual … just go on.”

As part of its evidence in court, the government’s representative read an 1884 statement that said Sámi herders live “on a less cultured level” and must “give way to the more civilized people.”

Two ministries within the Swedish government responsible for Sámi issues declined CBC requests for comment.

Making an ally of the church

Many of those present at Wednesday’s service hope the apology will be a turning point for the church, making it a crucial ally in the push for restitution from the government.

“I think that the church having the platform and the voice in Sweden that they have, they can actually play a huge part in this,” said Larsson Blind.

Within the church, meanwhile, the long and difficult work begins to regain trust with Sámi Christians and their communities.

“In some time … the [Sámi people may] take this apology and forgive the church,” said Inga, the Sámi church council’s chair. “But this is not the right time for that.”

Source: Long suppressed and forcibly assimilated, Sámi people in Sweden get an apology 30 years in the making

How to design language tests for citizenship

Immigration-based countries tend to have more pragmatic approach to language training than some of the European examples cited:

“Perfect swedish is overrated. But comprehensible Swedish is deeply underrated,” says Ulf Kristersson, the leader of Sweden’s centre-right Moderate party, which supports a language requirement to become a Swedish citizen. The left has come round, too: the Social Democrat-led government plans to introduce a language test. Sweden would thereby leave the small club of European countries that do not make passing such a test a condition of naturalisation.

To learn the language of the country you live in is the key to a full life there. But many experts in language policy oppose testing for citizenship—because they suspect a less compassionate motive in some who propose them. “Becoming a Danish citizen is something one has to become worthy of,” said Inger Stojberg in 2015, when she was the immigration and integration minister in Denmark’s centre-right government—implying that the unworthy had been slipping through. Her thinly camouflaged goal was not to improve immigrants’ Danish, but to naturalise fewer of them.

Sweden proposes language requirement for would-be citizens

Pretty standard requirements elsewhere:

Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson presented details of an inquiry into the proposals on Wednesday morning.

“Language is the key to work, but also the key to society,” said Johansson as he outlined why the government thought it needed to find “a better balance between rights and responsibilities” for would-be citizens.

Foreign nationals applying to become Swedish would need proof of Swedish skills at A2 level for speaking and writing, the second lowest out of six levels on the Common European Framework of Reference, and B1 for reading and listening.

To take the test, it would cost 500 kronor ($60) for the section relating to civil society and 2,000 kronor for the language component.

Citizenship applicants could alternatively provide proof of passing Grade 9 in a Swedish high school, or a course at upper secondary school, or the highest level of the Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) course.

The language requirements would apply to people aged between 16 and 66 who apply for Swedish citizenship, but certain exceptions are proposed, including for people with certain disabilities or those who are from a vulnerable background – for example being stateless or illiterate – who can prove they have tried to reach the required knowledge level but been unsuccessful.

Citizens of other Nordic countries who live in Sweden would also be exempted, as they are subject to a different process and are only required to notify authorities, rather than apply, in order to receive citizenship.

The proposals were put together based on reviewing the processes in place in other European countries, of which only three including Sweden do not currently require a language test.

But the details aren’t finalised yet. The next stage is to send the proposals out for consultation from relevant authorities, and they may be adapted depending on the responses received. Then a proposal would need to be passed by parliament and work to begin on putting together the tests.

“This is a reasonable proposal and we hope that it can be put into place as soon as possible, but of course this is a large organisational challenge,” said Johansson.

The government committed to investigating language tests for citizenship applicants in the cross-bloc deal struck with the Centre and Liberal parties, whose support the Social Democrat-Green coalition needed to form a government.

Separately, the government is looking into whether language skills should be required for permanent residence in Sweden.

Source: https://www.thelocal.se/20210113/sweden-proposes-language-requirement-for-would-be-citizens

#COVID-19: Comparing provinces with other countries 6 January Update

The standard charts can be found below.

There has understandably been a “feeding frenzy” regarding federal and provincial parliamentarians who have disregarded public health and their own government’s advice to forego travel, domestic or international, during the holidays.

In some cases, this has been to visit elderly family members (e.g., Sameer Zuberi and Kamal Khera of the Liberals, Niki Ashton of the NDP), in others for holidays (the various Alberta MLAs and Premier Kenney’s Chief of Staff, Quebec MNA Pierre Arcand) along with others.

Responsibility and accountability has been mixed. The federal NDP handled Ashton’s case the best, removing her quickly from her critic responsibilities, setting the tone for the federal liberals to follow sui. Ontario Premier Ford initially botched it being aware of his former finance minister Rod Phillips vacationing in St Barts but recovering quickly by accepting (insisting?) on his resignation. In rare tone deafness, Alberta Premier Kenney initial response not to sanction minister Allard, his Chief of Staff Huckabay and a number of MLAs, for travel during the holidays, that prompted outrage on all sides of the political spectrum and led to belated resignations and discipline.

Highly ironic given Kenney and the UCP reliance of “personal responsibility” and “good judgement” to reduce COVID risks when so many in the government have demonstrated neither.

Some good examples of Alberta commentary:

Rick Bell: Premier Kenney, it’s time to face the music

Don Braid: Kenney fires and demotes to spike scandal, but Albertans will decide if they forgive

And the contrary arguments from C2C’s editor George Koch:

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney first avoided meting out Ford-style punishment upon Allard and her fellow travellers. When the news broke, Kenney himself shouldered much of the blame and said he would provide new and crystal-clear “guidelines” covering ministers, MLAs and senior bureaucrats. The opposition, however, gleefully called for Allard’s headwhile the media republished tweets demanding Kenney’s own resignation. It has become fashionable to criticize nearly anything Kenney says or does; his handling of the pandemic is, according to one poll, approved of by just 30 percent of Albertans.

Personally, I found the Alberta premier’s initial response not only courageous but admirable and honourable. Unlike Ford and innumerable politicians, corporate leaders and heads of other organizations in countless analogous situations, Kenney declined to throw Allard under the bus. This is not the first time Kenney has gone to the mat for a subordinate, at considerable short-term political cost to himself. Who would you rather work for? Further, someone who clearly cares about the people who work for him might, just might, also be sincere in his concern for small businesspeople and voters at large.

Sadly, however, Kenney ultimately could not resist the stinking red tide of public opinion; on Monday, he accepted Allard’s resignation from cabinet, as well as that of his chief of staff, who had travelled to the UK, and demoted the other MLAs.

Source: https://c2cjournal.us19.list-manage.com/track/click?u=e8efce716429c34122979e2de&id=cb2f1e50a3&e=4174a59277

Minor week to week changes:

Infections per million: Sweden moves ahead of UK which in turn moves ahead of France, Canada total ahead of Prairies

Deaths per million: Germany moves ahead of Canada

And the standard weekly charts and table.

#COVID-19: Comparing provinces with other countries 30 December Update, including cumulative data

Will now provide the trend line and weekly data to provide a more complete picture. As the charts are self-explanatory (advise me if not), will continue to keep narrative to a minimum.

Alberta’s infection rate maintains its overall convergence with Quebec whereas the death rate of the Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan) have converged with Ontario’s.

The other related news, despite all the warnings and advice from political leaders, the Ontario finance minister was caught “off message” with a trip to the exclusive Caribbean of St Barts. Not the only one, Quebec MNA Pierre Arcand went to Barbados. Not to forget federal health minister Patty Hajdu’s repeated trips home to her riding during the first wave.

One expects better.

Lastly, may I wish you a happier new year.

Weekly updates below. Minor changes only:

Infections per million: UK moves ahead of Italy

Deaths per million: Prairies (Manitoba, Saskatchewan) moves ahead of Ontario

And the standard weekly charts and table.

#COVID-19: Comparing provinces with other countries 23 December Update including cumulative data

For a change and end 2020, I prepared these charts comparing infection and death rates per million for Canadian provinces with the G7 (less Canada) and top five immigration source countries (India, China, Philippines, Pakistan and Nigeria).

For the G7 average, only Japan is significantly lower. For immigration source countries, the large populations, lower infection and death rates except for India, and perhaps less comprehensive reporting, mean that rates are lower than all provinces save for Atlantic.

The charts compare the overall second-wave increase and particularly the relatively steeper increase in Western provinces for both infections and deaths.

While Canadian provincial infection rates are less than G7 (less Canada), Quebec’s death rate is higher than the G7.

And the standard weekly charts and table.

And in a rare public comment, Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf “condemned political leaders for their experiment, branding the light-touch strategy a miserable and deadly failure.”

Remember in the early days of the pandemic, when people like Tucker Carlson and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) advocated that the U.S. follow the Swedish model of avoiding strict lockdowns and letting life carry on largely as normal amid the highly contagious virus?

Well, as the year ends, Sweden is coming to terms with a death toll that is approximately 10 times higher than neighboring Norway and Finland, and now its king has condemned political leaders for their experiment, branding the light-touch strategy a miserable and deadly failure.

“The people of Sweden have suffered tremendously in difficult conditions,” King Carl XVI Gustaf, who is traditionally tight-lipped on political matters, told the Swedish state broadcaster SVT. He added, “I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died, and that is terrible.”

Although it’s remarkable for a king to comment on policy, his actual comments were a statement of the obvious. Anders Tegnell, the country’s top epidemiologist who designed its anti-lockdown strategy, has himself admitted that too many people have died and the country should have done more to prevent the spread of the disease from the outset.

Throughout the pandemic, Swedes have been allowed to go to restaurants and bars with no social-distancing measures in place and, until recently, were allowed to hit the gym and send their kids to school. The country has also broken with the near-universal guidance of recommending that protective face masks be worn in public, except in hospitals.

The sight of Swedes packing restaurants and bars in the first wave of the pandemic led some commentators in the U.S. to urge their own leaders to follow Sweden’s example. That way, they said, the economy would be protected and the virus could make its way through the population and offer a good level of herd immunity to slow down its spread.

Since then, deaths in Sweden have soared well beyond similar-size neighboring countries, and Tegnell previously said there’s no sign that herd immunity is doing anything to slow down the rate of infection. And the Swedish economy still entered a harsh recession—although it was milder than those seen in most other European nations.

The rapid increase in new infections has even caused Sweden to partially abandon its anti-lockdown strategy, with the government imposing tougher rules to reduce the limit on public gatherings to eight people from 50, asking high schools to do their teaching remotely, and banning late alcohol sales. Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson warned last month that the measures will harm the economy but are necessary.

Speaking to Swedish network TV4 this week, Tegnell said he was shocked by the second wave of the pandemic, saying, “I think many, with me, are surprised that it has been able to come back so strongly.”

A poll published Thursday showed that support for Tegnell and his approach has collapsed over the past two months.

Source: Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf Brands His Country’s Anti-Lockdown Strategy as a Deadly Failure

After Months of Minimal COVID-19 Containment, Sweden Appears to Be Considering a New Approach

 

Better late than never:

Swedish authorities appear to be reconsidering their notoriously lax approach to COVID-19 containment, which has contributed to one of the world’s higher coronavirus death rates.

Starting Oct. 19, regional health authorities may direct citizens to avoid high-risk areas such as gyms, concerts, public transportation and shopping centers, the Telegraph reports. They may also encourage residents to avoid socializing with elderly or other high-risk individuals.

“It’s more of a lockdown situation—but a local lockdown,” Dr. Johan Nojd, who leads the infectious diseases department in the city of Uppsala, told theTelegraph.

In a statement provided to TIME, however, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Sweden rejected that characterization.

“It is not a lockdown but some extra recommendations that could be communicated locally when a need from the regional authorities is communicated and the Public Health Agency so decides,” the spokesperson said.

A legal official from Sweden’s public health agency told the Telegraph the new policy is “something in between regulations and recommendations.” Violating the guidelines, for example, would not result in fines. Still, it’s a significant shift from Sweden’s previous handling of the coronavirus pandemic. While countries around the world implemented lockdowns once the virus began spreading, Swedish authorities largely let life continue as normal.

The Swedish government in March limited public gatherings to 50 people, but the policy left gaping loopholes—it doesn’t apply to private and corporate gatherings, nor to schools, shopping malls and plenty of other locations. Restaurants and bars never closed. Masks are not recommended in most places. There’s little to stop people from going to school or work if they come into contact with an infected person. Sweden’s testing and contact tracing capacitiesare lacking.

As of Oct. 18, Sweden’s per-capita death rate—58.6 per 100,000 people—was among the highest in the world. And from early September to early October, average daily cases nationwide rose by 173%, with particularly dramatic increases in cities such as Stockholm and Uppsala.

These hard-hit areas are the focus of Sweden’s shifting guidance, according to theTelegraph‘s report. Nojd told the outlet he is considering telling people in Uppsala not to visit the elderly and other vulnerable populations, and to avoid making unnecessary trips on public transportation. He also mentioned the possibility of imposing curfews on restaurants.

Representatives from the city of Uppsala did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for further comment.

Swedish authorities appear to be conceding that reaching herd immunity—the threshold at which enough of a population is immune to the virus for it to stop spreading widely—is unlikely to be happen without a vaccine. While officials have avoided explicitly calling herd immunity the goal of their casual containment approach, emails obtained by journalists show high-level Swedish public-health officials discussing that strategy as early as March, apparently motivated by economic concerns.

National studies, however, show that far fewer people have developed natural immunity than officials hoped—as evidenced by the ongoing spike in infections. Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell acknowledged that reality last week.

“I think the obvious conclusion is that the level of immunity in those cities is not at all as high as we have, as maybe some people, have believed,” Tegnell said. “I think what we are seeing is very much a consequence of the very heterogeneous spread that this disease has, which means that even if you feel like there have been a lot of cases in some big cities, there are still huge pockets of people who have not been affected yet.”

Source: After Months of Minimal COVID-19 Containment, Sweden Appears to Be Considering a New Approach

The Swedish COVID-19 Response Is a Disaster. It Shouldn’t Be a Model for the Rest of the World

Good telling analysis. By way of comparison, Quebec death rate is about 71 per 100,000, Ontario 21 per 100,000 and Canada less Quebec 13 per 100,000.

Money quote: “The Swedish way has yielded little but death and misery.”

The Swedish COVID-19 experiment of not implementing early and strong measures to safeguard the population has been hotly debated around the world, but at this point we can predict it is almost certain to result in a net failure in terms of death and suffering. As of Oct. 13, Sweden’s per capita death rate is 58.4 per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University data, 12th highest in the world (not including tiny Andorra and San Marino). But perhaps more striking are the findings of a study published Oct. 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which pointed out that, of the countries the researchers investigated, Sweden and the U.S. essentially make up a category of two: they are the only countries with high overall mortality rates that have failed to rapidly reduce those numbers as the pandemic has progressed.

Yet the architects of the Swedish plan are selling it as a success to the rest of the world. And officials in other countries, including at the top level of the U.S. government, are discussing the strategy as one to emulate—despite the reality that doing so will almost certainly increase the rates of death and misery.

Countries that locked down early and/or used extensive test and tracing—including Denmark, Finland, Norway, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and New Zealand—saved lives and limited damage to their economies. Countries that locked down late, came out of lock down too early, did not effectively test and quarantine, or only used a partial lockdown—including Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the U.S. and the U.K.—have almost uniformly done worse in rates of infection and death.

Despite this, Sweden’s Public Health Agency director Johan Carlson has claimedthat “the Swedish situation remains favorable,” and that the country’s response has been “consistent and sustainable.” The data, however, show that the case rate in Sweden, as elsewhere in Europe, is currently increasing.

Average daily cases rose 173% nationwide from Sept. 2-8 to Sept. 30-Oct. 6 and in Stockholm that number increased 405% for the same period. Though some have argued that rising case numbers can be attributed to increased testing, a recent study of Stockholm’s wastewater published Oct. 5 by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) argues otherwise. An increased concentration of the virus in wastewater, the KTH researchers write, shows a rise of the virus in the population of the greater Stockholm area (where a large proportion of the country’s population live) in a way that is entirely independent of testing. Yet even with this rise in cases, the government is easing the few restrictions it had in place.

From early on, the Swedish government seemed to treat it as a foregone conclusion that many people would die. The country’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter on April 3, “We will have to count the dead in thousands. It is just as well that we prepare for it.” In July, as the death count reached 5,500, Löfven said that the “strategy is right, I am completely convinced of that.” In September, Dr. Anders Tegnell, the Public Health Agency epidemiologist in charge of the country’s COVID-19 response reiterated the party line that a growing death count did “not mean that the strategy itself has gone wrong.” There has been a lack of written communication between the Prime Minister and the Pubic Health Authority: when the authors requested all emails and documents between the Prime Minister’s office and the Public Health Authority for the period Jan. 1—Sept. 14, the Prime Minister’s Registrar replied on Sept. 17 that none existed.

Despite the Public Health Agency’s insistence to the contrary, the core of this strategy is widely understood to have been about building natural “herd immunity”—essentially, letting enough members of a population (the herd) get infected, recover, and then develop an immune system response to the virus that it would ultimately stop spreading. Both the agency and Prime Minister Löfven have characterized the approach as “common sense“ trust-based recommendations rather than strict measures, such as lockdowns, which they say are unsustainable over an extended period of time—and that herd immunity was just a desirable side effect. However, internal government communications suggest otherwise.

Emails obtained by one of the authors through Freedom of Information laws (called offentlighetsprincipen, or “Openness Principle,” in Swedish) between national and regional government agencies, including the Swedish Public Health Authority, as well as those obtained by other journalists, suggest that the goal was all along in fact to develop herd immunity. We have also received information through sources who made similar requests or who corresponded directly with government agencies that back up this conclusion. For the sake of transparency, we created a website where we’ve posted some of these documents.

One example showing clearly that government officials had been thinking about herd immunity from early on is a March 15 email sent from a retired doctor to Tegnell, the epidemiologist and architect of the Swedish plan, which he forwarded to his Finnish counterpart, Mika Salminen. In it, the retired doctor recommended allowing healthy people to be infected in controlled settings as a way to fight the epidemic. “One point would be to keep schools open to reach herd immunity faster,” Tegnell noted at the top of the forwarded email.

Salminen responded that the Finnish Health Agency had considered this but decided against it, because “over time, the children are still going to spread the infection to other age groups.” Furthermore, the Finnish model showed that closing schools would reduce “the attack rate of the disease on the elderly” by 10%. Tegnell responded:10 percent might be worth it?”

The majority of the rest of Sweden’s policymakers seemed to have agreed: the country never closed daycare or schools for children under the age of 16, and school attendance is mandatory under Swedish law, with no option for distance learning or home schooling, even for family members in high risk groups. Policymakers essentially decided to use children and schools as participants in an experiment to see if herd immunity to a deadly disease could be reached. Multiple outbreaks at schools occurred in both the spring and autumn.

At this point, whether herd immunity was the “goal” or a “byproduct” of the Swedish plan is semantics, because it simply hasn’t worked. In April, the Public Health Agency predicted that 40% of the Stockholm population would have the disease and acquire protective antibodies by May. According to the agency’s ownantibody studies published Sept. 3 for samples collected up until late June, the actual figure for random testing of antibodies is only 11.4% for Stockholm, 6.3% for Gothenburg and 7.1% across Sweden. As of mid-August, herd immunity was still “nowhere in sight,” according to a Journal of the Royal Society of Medicinestudy. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, herd immunity to an infectious disease has never been achieved without a vaccine.

Löfven, his government, and the Public Health Agency all say that the high COVID-19 death rate in Sweden can be attributed to the fact that a large portion of these deaths occurred in nursing homes, due to shortcomings in elderly care.

However, the high infection rate across the country was the underlying factor that led to a high number of those becoming infected in care homes. Many sick elderly were not seen by a doctor because the country’s hospitals were implementing a triage system that, according to a study published July 1 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, appeared to have factored in age and predicted prognosis. “This likely reduced [intensive care unit] load at the cost of more high-risk patients”—like elderly people with confirmed infection—dying outside the ICU.” Only 13% of the elderly residents who died with COVID-19 during the spring received hospital care, according to preliminary statistics from the National Board of Health and Welfare released Aug.

In one case which seems representative of how seniors were treated, patient Reza Sedghi was not seen by a doctor the day he died from COVID-19 at a care home in Stockholm. A nurse told Sedghi’s daughter Lili Perspolisi that her father was given a shot of morphine before he passed away, that no oxygen was administered and staff did not call an ambulance. “No one was there and he died alone,” Perspolisi says.

In order to be admitted for hospital care, patients needed to have breathing problems and even then, many were reportedly denied care. Regional healthcare managers in each of Sweden’s 21 regions, who are responsible for care at hospitals as well as implementing Public Health Agency guidelines, have claimed that no patients were denied care during the pandemic. But internal local government documents from April from some of Sweden’s regions—including those covering the biggest cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö—also show directives for how some patients including those receiving home care, those living at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and those with special needs could not receive oxygen or hospitalization in some situations. Dagens Nyheterpublished an investigation on Oct. 13 showing that patients in Stockholm were denied care as a result of these guidelines. Further, a September investigation by Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s national public broadcaster, found that more than 100 people reported to the Swedish Health and Care Inspectorate that their relatives with COVID-19 either did not receive oxygen or nutrient drops or that they were not allowed to come to hospital.

These issues do not only affect the elderly or those who had COVID-19. The National Board of Health and Welfare’s guidelines for intensive care in extraordinary circumstances throughout Sweden state that priority should be given to patients based on biological, not chronological, age. Sörmlands Media, in an investigation published May 13, cited a number of sources saying that, in many parts of the country, the health care system was already operating in a way such that people were being denied the type of inpatient care they would have received in normal times. Regional health agencies were using a Clinical Frailty Scale, an assessment tool designed to predict the need for care in a nursing home or hospital, and the life expectancy of older people by estimating their fragility, to determine whether someone should receive hospital care and was applied to decisions regarding all sorts of treatment, not only for COVID-19. These guidelines led to many people with health care needs unrelated to COVID-19 not getting the care they need, with some even dying as a result—collateral damage of Sweden’s COVID-19 strategy.

Dr. Michael Broomé, the chief physician at Stockholm’s Karolinska Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, says his department’s patient load tripled during the spring. His staff, he says, “have often felt powerless and inadequate. We have lost several young, previously healthy, patients with particularly serious disease courses. We have also repeatedly been forced to say no to patients we would normally have accepted due to a lack of experienced staff, suitable facilities and equipment.”

In June, Dagens Nyheter reported a story of one case showing how disastrous such a scenario can be. Yanina Lucero had been ill for several weeks in March with severe breathing problems, fever and diarrhea, yet COVID-19 tests were not available at the time except for those returning from high risk areas who displayed symptoms, those admitted to the hospital, and those working in health care. Yanina was only 39 years old and had no underlying illnesses. Her husband Cristian brought her to an unnamed hospital in Stockholm, but were told it was full and sent home, where Lucero’s health deteriorated. After several days when she could barely walk, an ambulance arrived and Lucero was taken to Huddinge hospital, where she was sedated and put on a ventilator. She died on April 15 without receiving a COVID-19 test in hospital.

Sweden did try some things to protect citizens from the pandemic. On March 12 the government restricted public gatherings to 500 people and the next day the Public Health Agency issued a press release telling people with possible COVID-19 symptoms to stay home. On March 17, the Public Health Agency asked employers in the Stockholm area to let employees work from home if they could. The government further limited public gatherings to 50 people on March 29. Yet there were no recommendations on private events and the 50-person limit doesn’t apply to schools, libraries, corporate events, swimming pools, shopping malls or many other situations. Starting April 1, the government restricted visitsto retirement homes (which reopened to visitors on Oct. 1 without masksrecommended for visitors or staff). But all these recommendations came later than in the other Nordic countries. In the interim, institutions were forced to make their own decisions; some high schools and universities changed to on-line teaching and restaurants and bars went to table seating with distance, and some companies instituted rules about wearing masks on site and encouraging employees to work from home.

Meanwhile Sweden built neither the testing nor the contact-tracing capacity that other wealthy European countries did. Until the end of May (and again in August), Sweden tested 20% the number of people per capita compared with Denmark, and less than both Norway and Finland; Sweden has often had among the lowest test rates in Europe. Even with increased testing in the fall, Sweden still only tests only about one-fourth that of Denmark.

Sweden never quarantined those arriving from high-risk areas abroad nor did it close most businesses, including restaurants and bars. Family members of those who test positive for COVID-19 must attend school in person, unlike in many other countries where if one person in a household tests positive the entire family quarantines, usually for 14 days. Employees must also report to work as usual unless they also have symptoms of COVID-19, an agreement with their employer for a leave of absence or a doctor recommends that they isolate at home.

On Oct. 1, the Public Health Authority issued non-binding “rules of conduct” that open the possibility for doctors to be able to recommend that certain individuals stay home for seven days if a household member tests positive for COVID-19. But there are major holes in these rules: they do not apply to children (of all ages, from birth to age 16, the year one starts high school), people in the household who previously have a positive PCR or antibody test or, people with socially important professions, such as health care staff (under certain circumstances).

There is also no date for when the rule would go into effect. “It may not happen right away, Stockholm will start quickly but some regions may need more time to get it all in place,” Tegnell said at a Oct. 1 press conference. Meanwhile, according to current Public Health Agency guidelines issued May 15 and still in place, those who test positive for COVID-19 are expected to attend work and school with mild symptoms so long as they are seven days post-onset of symptoms and fever free for 48 hours.

Sweden actually recommends against masks everywhere except in places where health care workers are treating COVID-19 patients (some regions expand that to health care workers treating suspected patients as well). Autumn corona outbreaks in Dalarna, Jönköping, Luleå, Malmö, Stockholm and Uppsalahospitals are affecting both hospital staff and patients. In an email on April 5, Tegnell wrote to Mike Catchpole, the chief scientist at the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC): “We are quite worried about the statement ECDC has been preparing about masks.” Tegnell attached a documentin which he expresses concern that ECDC recommending facemasks would “imply that the spread is airborne which would seriously harm further communication and trust among the population and health care workers” and concludes “we would like to warn against the publication of this advice.” Despite this, on April 8 ECDC recommended masks and on June 8 the World Health Organization updated its stance to recommend masks.

Sweden’s government officials stuck to their party line. Karin Tegmark Wisell of the Public Health Agency said at a press conference on July 14 that “we see around the world that masks are used in a way so that you rather increase the spread of infection.” Two weeks later, Lena Hallengren, the Minister of Health and Social Affairs, spoke about masks at a press conference on July 29 and said, “We don’t have that tradition or culture” and that the government “would not review the Public Health Agency’s decision not to recommend masks.”

All of this creates a situation which leaves teachers, bus drivers, medical workers and care home staff more exposed, without face masks at a time when the rest of the world is clearly endorsing widespread mask wearing.

On Aug. 13, Tegnell said that to recommend masks to the public “quite a lot of resources are required. There is quite a lot of money that would be spent if you are going to have masks.” Indeed, emails between Tegnell and colleagues at the Public Health Agency and Andreas Johansson of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs show that the policy concerns of the health authority were influenced by financial interests, including the commercial concerns of Sweden’s airports.

Swedavia, the owner of the country’s largest airport, Stockholm Arlanda, told employees during the spring and early summer they could not wear masks or gloves to work. One employee told Upsala Nya Tidning newspaper on Aug. 24 “Many of us were sick during the beginning of the pandemic and two colleagues have died due to the virus. I would estimate that 60%-80% of the staff at the security checks have had the infection.”

“Our union representatives fought for us to have masks at work,” the employee said, “but the airport’s response was that we were an authority that would not spread fear, but we would show that the virus was not so dangerous.” Swedavia’s reply was that they had introduced the infection control measures recommended by the authorities. On July 1, the company changed its policy, recommending masks for everyone who comes to Arlanda—that, according to a Swedavia spokesperson, was not as a result of “an infection control measure advocated by Swedish authorities,” but rather, due to a joint European Union Aviation Safety Agency and ECDC recommendation for all of Europe.

As early as January, the Public Health Agency was warning the government about costs. In a Jan. 31 communique, Public Health Agency Director Johan Carlsson (appointed by Löfven) and General Counsel Bitte Bråstad wrote to the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, cautioning the government about costs associated with classifying COVID-19 as a socially dangerous disease: “After a decision on quarantine, costs for it [include] compensation which according to the Act, must be paid to those who, due to the quarantine decision, must refrain from gainful employment. The uncertainty factors are many even when calculating these costs. Society can also suffer a loss of production due to being quarantined [and] prevented from performing gainful employment which they would otherwise have performed.” Sweden never implemented quarantine in society, not even for those returning from travel abroad or family members of those who test positive for COVID-19.

Not only did these lack of measures likely result in more infections and deaths, but it didn’t even help the economy: Sweden has fared worse economically than other Nordic countries throughout the pandemic.

The Swedish way has yielded little but death and misery. And, this situation has not been honestly portrayed to the Swedish people or to the rest of the world.

A Public Health Agency report published July 7 included data for teachers in primary schools working on-site as well as for secondary school teachers who switched to distance instruction online. In the report, they combined the two data sources and compared the result to the general population, stating that teachers were not at greater risk and implying that schools were safe. But in fact, the infection rate of those teaching in classrooms was 60% higher than those teaching online—completely undermining the conclusion of the report.

The report also compares Sweden to Finland for March through the end of May and wrongly concludes that the ”closing of schools had no measurable effect on the number of cases of COVID-19 among children.” As testing among children in Sweden was almost non-existent at that time compared to Finland, these data were misrepresented; a better way to look at it would be to consider the fact that Sweden had seven times as many children per capita treated in the ICU during that time period.

When pressed about discrepancies in the report, Public Health Agency epidemiologist Jerker Jonsson replied on Aug. 21 via email: “The title is a bit misleading. It is not a direct comparison of the situation in Finland to the situation in Sweden. This is just a report and not a peer-reviewed scientific study. This was just a quick situation report and nothing more.” However the Public Health Agency and Minister of Education continue to reference this report as justification to keep schools open, and other countries cite it as an example.

This is not the only case where Swedish officials have misrepresented data in an effort to make the situation seem more under control than it really is. In April, a group of 22 scientists and physicians criticized Sweden’s government for the 105 deaths per day the country was seeing at the time, and Tegnell and the Public Health Agency responded by saying the true number was just 60 deaths per day. Revised government figures now show Tegnell was incorrect and the critics were right. The Public Health Agency says the discrepancy was due to a backlog in accounting for deaths, but they have backlogged deaths throughout the pandemic, making it difficult to track and gauge the actual death toll in real time.

Sweden never went into an official lockdown but an estimated 1.5 million have self-isolated, largely the elderly and those in risk groups. This was probably the largest factor in slowing the spread of the virus in the country in the summer. However, recent data suggest that cases are yet again spiking in the country, and there’s no indication that government policies will adapt.

Health care workers, scientists and private citizens have all voiced concerns about the Swedish approach. But Sweden is a small country, proud of its humanitarian image—so much so that we cannot seem to understand when we have violated it. There is simply no way to justify the magnitude of lost lives, poorer health and putting risk groups into long-term isolation, especially not in an effort to reach an unachievable herd immunity. Countries need to take care before adopting the “Swedish way.” It could have tragic consequences for this pandemic or the next.

Source: The Swedish COVID-19 Response Is a Disaster. It Shouldn’t Be a Model for the Rest of the World