Evaluation of science advice during the COVID-19 pandemic in Sweden

Sweden was well equipped to prevent the pandemic of COVID-19 from becoming serious. Over 280 years of collaboration between political bodies, authorities, and the scientific community had yielded many successes in preventive medicine. Sweden’s population is literate and has a high level of trust in authorities and those in power. During 2020, however, Sweden had ten times higher COVID-19 death rates compared with neighbouring Norway. In this report, we try to understand why, using a narrative approach to evaluate the Swedish COVID-19 policy and the role of scientific evidence and integrity. We argue that that scientific methodology was not followed by the major figures in the acting authorities—or the responsible politicians—with alternative narratives being considered as valid, resulting in arbitrary policy decisions. In 2014, the Public Health Agency merged with the Institute for Infectious Disease Control; the first decision by its new head (Johan Carlson) was to dismiss and move the authority’s six professors to Karolinska Institute. With this setup, the authority lacked expertise and could disregard scientific facts. The Swedish pandemic strategy seemed targeted towards “natural” herd-immunity and avoiding a societal shutdown. The Public Health Agency labelled advice from national scientists and international authorities as extreme positions, resulting in media and political bodies to accept their own policy instead. The Swedish people were kept in ignorance of basic facts such as the airborne SARS-CoV-2 transmission, that asymptomatic individuals can be contagious and that face masks protect both the carrier and others. Mandatory legislation was seldom used; recommendations relying upon personal responsibility and without any sanctions were the norm. Many elderly people were administered morphine instead of oxygen despite available supplies, effectively ending their lives. If Sweden wants to do better in future pandemics, the scientific method must be re-established, not least within the Public Health Agency. It would likely make a large difference if a separate, independent Institute for Infectious Disease Control is recreated. We recommend Sweden begins a self-critical process about its political culture and the lack of accountability of decision-makers to avoid future failures, as occurred with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Writing about COVID-19

As well as building up a resource of information and analysis on COVID-19, we want to ensure that we pass on any tips about what can go wrong when writing about this subject: and how to get it right! If you have experience in writing about this area and feel you have advice that would help others, please contact us at: covid19editor@wfsj-briefing.org.

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