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Denmark and Sweden responded differently to the pandemic. How did they fare?

Countries around the world have pursued different strategies to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. While many implemented shutdowns, including Denmark, nearby Sweden took a different approach, trusting citizens to follow social-distancing guidelines on their own and setting an objective of herd immunity. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on how the two responses played out.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We are all looking for answers in this pandemic.

    Sweden took a different track, not shutting down, trusting citizens to follow social distancing on their own, and putting a priority on so-called herd immunity. The idea is to expose as many as possible to the virus.

    The results were mixed.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on how the gamble has played out.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Sweden was widely criticized for paddling against the worldwide lockdown tide, but now there's a sense of vindication.

    Around the world, economies are struggling to stay afloat. The Eurozone has shrunk by 12 percent, but Sweden's hit is less than 9 percent. As for COVID, Sweden has gone from being one of the most infectious European nations to one of the safest.

  • Anna Mia Ekstrom:

    Right now, we seem to be in a fairly good position. We see a steady decline in the number of critically ill patients and also deaths since the mid-April.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Infectious diseases specialist Anna Mia Ekstrom thinks Sweden was right to trust people to socially distance.

  • Anna Mia Ekstrom:

    Hard lockdowns are unsustainable over sort of any extended period of time in a free society. So,unless you find sort of an acceptable level of restrictions and recommendations that people can understand and support, I don't think you can sustain a lockdown.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    During April, Sweden suffered more than 100 deaths a day. In all, there have been more than 5,900 Swedish fatalities. Sweden ranks 11th in the world, one place behind the U.S., in terms of deaths per 100,000.

    Anders Tegnell has run the Swedish operation. His aim has been to create extensive immunity. He calculated that law-abiding Swedes would follow health guidelines and, as a result, there would only be a soft spread of the virus.

  • Anders Tegnell (through translator):

    The most important development right now is that the infections rates have come down and are continuing to go down.

    A part of the explanation for that is, in my view, that quite a large part of the population has immunity.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Along with other countries, Sweden aims to ease pressure on its hospitals.

  • Anders Tegnell:

    Swedish health care is one of the best in the world, and it continues to be like that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This local government promotional video paints an idealized portrait of Swedish retirement, but the COVID reality was carnage.

    Ninety percent of Sweden's fatalities were aged over 70. Half were in nursing homes. Oxygen wasn't provided. Instead, seniors were given morphine to ease the pain of respiratory failure.

  • Paul Franks:

    Yes, I really do mourn the loss of thousands of people in Sweden who died who might not have done had we had a more aggressive strategy towards COVID-19.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Professor Paul Franks is an epidemiologist in Southern Sweden.

  • Paul Franks:

    Death from COVID-19 is a miserable way to go out. There's no last sort of touch of the skin or quiet words in the ear.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Another professor, Yngve Gustafson, told a newspaper that nursing home deaths amounted to active euthanasia.

    General practitioner Jon Tallinger resigned from the Swedish Health Service in protest.

  • Jon Tallinger:

    What I saw in my inner eye, so to speak, was thousands of people suffocating to death with these instructions that came from the very top.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For Tallinger, this video was the smoking gun. It issued instructions to Swedish care staff. There was no suggestion of sending patients to hospital. Instead, it prescribed morphine and a sedative used in end-of-life palliative care.

  • Jon Tallinger:

    The Swedish health care system wasn't overwhelmed because they didn't send anyone to the hospital. They died in their homes and the care homes.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What do you think of these claims that the Swedish authorities basically sacrificed people in nursing homes?

  • Paul Franks:

    In March, people really didn't know — nobody knew what was happening, right? The world was in disarray. Even the best experts didn't know what was happening. So people really were, at the very best, making educated guesses how to proceed. And Sweden made its educated guesses.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Across the bridge, Denmark imposed a total lockdown early in the pandemic. Thus far, its death rate per 100,000 is a fifth of Sweden's.

    But in the past few days, its infection rate has risen above Sweden's, possibly because Denmark has now tested a third of its 5.6 million population. In a significant reverse, people in the cities of Copenhagen and Odense are being urged to work from home.

  • Jens Lundgren:

    In the short term, it's pretty clear that we have been sort of going through the first wave in a better sort of public health sense, compared to Sweden. But the jury's still out here.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Professor Jens Lundgren is an infectious diseases specialist, and he's leading a trial of a drug formulated to fight COVID. He has sympathy for Sweden. Danish care homes also suffered.

  • Jens Lundgren:

    You could be infectious without having symptoms.

    So, therefore, the personnel that comes to a nursing home, they are the potential source of infection and brings, essentially, the infection into the nursing home.

    And we hadn't thought about that. But it's now abundantly clear that can happen. And, as a consequence, you want to test the personnel before they come in. So, I think we're in a much better space now.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In Denmark, state figures show that 50 percent of all infections occurred amongst ethnic minorities, who comprise just 9 percent of the overall population. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen:

  • Mette Frederiksen:

    When we look at the numbers in Denmark in a sober manner, there are definitely too many people with a non-Western background who are infected.

    Of course, we must address this in a decent way, but the numbers have to come out, so we can combat the virus.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But social worker Uzma Ahmed, a racial equality activist, is worried that ethnic minorities are being stigmatized.

  • Uzma Ahmed:

    People who drive the buses, they are actually being blamed for bringing in corona, instead of saying, hey, these the people who are actually working, while others are keeping themselves safe.

    We have a very turned-around logic that I would say serves the purpose of finding scapegoats.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The authorities say prayer sessions like this, breaching bans on mass gatherings, led to a crackdown in Denmark's second city, Aarhus.

    Jyllands-Posten newspaper also showed a number of crowded Muslim funerals where social distancing was ignored.

    But aren't there some communities which just aren't abiding by social distancing rules?

  • Uzma Ahmed:

    Aarhus is not the only place where it has happened and where the same restrictions are applied. But we don't talk about the restrictions in the other areas as personalized and as something that has got to do with culture.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Scandinavia's summer is nearly over. Some experts fear the cold may invigorate the virus. Yet both Sweden and Denmark are relatively upbeat.

    Anders Tegnell doesn't expect a second wave.

  • Anders Tegnell:

    We will have this kind of rather local, but rather big outbreaks, not the complete wave over the country, like what we're seeing right now, but, rather, these localized smaller or bigger outbreaks in different places.

  • Jens Lundgren:

    It's safe to say that, with the ongoing research efforts, in six months' time from now, things may actually look, what can I say, potentially even better.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At the start of the pandemic, Denmark sealed its border with Sweden because of the perceived risk, but, in COVID's volatile new world, the threat has been reversed.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating reporting. We thank you, Malcolm.

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