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How Sweden and Denmark represent opposite Scandinavian COVID-19 responses

In Scandinavia, Sweden is experiencing a rising death toll from COVID-19 -- as well as growing doubt about the country’s more relaxed approach to handling it. Meanwhile, neighboring Denmark is set to ease some of its lockdown restrictions after a drop in numbers of infections and deaths. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant, who lived in Copenhagen for seven years, reports from outside London.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to Scandinavia, where Sweden is experiencing a rising death toll amid doubt over its more relaxed strategy to combat COVID-19.

    Meanwhile, its neighbor Denmark is set to ease some of its lockdown restrictions because of a drop in the number of infections and deaths.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant lived in the Danish capital for seven years, but he joins us tonight from his home outside London — Malcolm.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Judy, tonight, we're still in lockdown in Britain.

    At first, the government here adopted the Swedish version, which meant that there were fairly limited restrictions. Then they switched to the Danish version, which an almost total shutdown.

    This is a story of two very similar Nordic cultures who've got a widely differing approach about how to fight COVID-19.

    At a time when most of the world is shuttered, Sweden is open for business. Markets and shops are trading. Restaurants are serving. Schools are educating. The Swedes advocate limited social distancing. Their strategy is to protect the vulnerable, while allowing the virus to spread through healthy people, so they can develop antibodies.

    This is designed to create so-called herd immunity, which, theoretically, should result in most people being safe.

    But, today, the health authorities announced a further 96 fatalities.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Thank you very much.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Last night, President Trump criticized the Swedish approach.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They talk about Sweden, but Sweden is suffering very gravely. You know that, right? Sweden did that, the herd. They call it the herd.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The Swedish anti-virus campaign is being led, not by the country's prime minister, but by Anders Tegnell, an epidemiologist with the experience of fighting Ebola in Africa. He responded to Mr. Trump this afternoon.

  • Anders Tegnell:

    No, we don't share his opinion. Of course we are suffering. Everybody in the world is suffering right now in different ways.

    But Swedish health care, which I guess he alludes to — it's very difficult to understand — is taking care of this in a very, very good manner.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Fellow scientist Marcus Carlsson despairs of Sweden being so out of step with most of the world.

  • Marcus Carlsson:

    This, to me, sounds a bit like a madman. We are here playing Russian roulette with the Swedish population.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    King Carl Gustaf hinted at disapproval of government tactics, as he urged Swedes to cancel the traditional annual getaway to country cabins.

  • King Carl Gustaf (through translator):

    Some of this will not be possible this Easter. We have to accept this. We have to rethink and adjust to staying at home.

  • Lena Andersson:

    My view is that this is — it is a hopeful thing that Sweden is taking another path, that we don't have these draconian measures, with police walking the streets stopping people from leaving their homes, and the military and so on.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Novelist and newspaper columnist Lena Andersson approves of what she believes is Swedish common sense.

  • Lena Andersson:

    So I see it as sound rationality. Once you get this explained by the authorities and the experts, people are grown up and adult enough to realize what — that that's the wise thing to do.

  • Tino Sanandaji:

    It's not that we have to pick between locking down society for two years or going for herd immunity to infections, which is what the Swedes are doing.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We met Iranian-born economist Tino Sanandaji in 2015. He's renowned for challenging conventional Swedish thought, and wishes the country had followed some Asian models.

  • Tino Sanandaji:

    The South Koreans are containing it. They use mass testing, tracking and other technologies, masks. Since that option exists — because I believe that option does exist.

    The Swedish authorities have sort of dismissed it. It's just not — South Korea is too different. We can't do that. Why?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In Sweden, the rate of deaths stands at 69 per million and rising, whereas, five miles away, across the bridge in Denmark, it's 39 per million.

    The Danes love community singing and what they call hygge, which translates as being cozy while staying at home. The state broadcaster has combined both components with a daily televised sing-a-long during a months-long lockdown.

    National spirits were lifted further earlier this week, when Danish students in the last semester of high school were promised the chance of graduation, with perhaps a more restrained party than usual.

    They were told they could resume their education after Easter. Pupils aged under 10 will also return to school. But amid concerns that there could be a resurgence of the virus, most businesses will remain locked down for a further month.

  • Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen:

  • Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (through translator):

    In reality, it will be a bit like a high-wire act. If we stop up, we can fall. If we move forward too quickly, something else can go wrong. And that is why we have to take one cautious step at a time.

  • Michael Booth:

    I am very, very happy to have been in Denmark during all of this. So, it's a political decision, but it is one that is extremely reassuring. And for me, yes, I think they have got it right.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We met Nordic expert Michael Booth four years ago. He's author of a book called the almost nearly perfect people.

  • Michael Booth:

    We know that the Danes are the happiest people in the world, but they are also the most trusting, the levels of trust between people and from the people to their institutions and even their politicians, which is the most remarkable thing, from a British or American point of view.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    There's a sense of relief amongst Danes that the curve appears to be flattening, and that their restraint appears to be paying off.

    Meik Wiking runs a Danish think tank focused on well-being, happiness and quality of life. We first met him in Copenhagen four years ago.

  • Meik Wiking:

    I think this is a testimony to the importance of trust in political institutions, that people are backing the guidelines.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For the time being, Danes will keep on community singing. But the Swedes have been warned that the rising death toll may force the government to change its tune and impose tougher restrictions.

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

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