Why Sweden’s Covid policy is a good fit for Sweden – and nowhere else

When members of the public started to resist and protest coronavirus measures, especially in countries that had not been hit hard by the first wave in the pandemic, observers looked to Sweden, despite the country’s high death toll. Sweden had pursued a low-intervention policy, relying more on soft recommendations and requests than hard restrictions. The Swedish light-touch regime tended to stick to the prepared plan, rather than undergoing repeated lockdown-relaxation cycles. (For an assessment that tracks the coronavirus policies of various countries and compares measures through an intervention scale, please see the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government). 

In this article, we do not intend to evaluate the specifics of any policy against the pandemic, but rather to show that the policies pursued in Sweden and neighboring Denmark mirrored their national cultural values, and therefore cannot serve as a blueprint for other countries elsewhere with different value sets. These necessary cultural values consist of (1) taking care of oneself as independent persons in an individualistic way, (2) valuing consideration for others, and (3) being open to uncertainty and the unknowns of dealing with a novel disease. 

A number of countries with an individualistic culture (i.e. where the citizens strive to look after themselves and behave as individuals independent from others) attempted to rely on the self-determination of the population, but this resulted in failure. Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which quantify culture and thus make it comparable and measurable between nations, identify especially the Anglo-Saxon countries and the Netherlands shortly the so-called Northern European-Northern American countries,   as individualistic cultures. This handful of countries decided to pursue non-intervention policies, letting their people look out for themselves. However, Covid-19 is a communicable infectious disease, and taking care of oneself is thus not enough to contain the spread. For example, facemasks tend to protect other people the population as a whole by preventing the wearer from spreading infection, rather than preventing the individual wearer from becoming infected. 

Individualism must go hand-in-hand with social values such as cooperation, empathy, and consideration of others. Being smart is nice, but you don’t have to show it off! Hofstede measured this value of consideration for others v focusing on oneself with a dimension that is irritatingly named Masculinity v Femininity (and is therefore often confused with gender dominance in cultures). On a scale of 0 to 100, Sweden scores 5 (the lowest of all countries) and Denmark scores 16. This map shows the countries that are individualistic and cooperative countries and the countries that are individualistic and self-focused. 

Especially in the Scandinavian countries, the informal “Law of Jante” (Janteloven) requires moderation and cooperation. Long discussions precede consensus, and this is one reason why it took a dramatic rise in casualties for Sweden to set measures in place, and why – once established – these measures were not removed quickly thereafter. Clearly, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany don’t have the Jante Law of Jante…and neither, for our purposes, does the Czech Republic. Therefore, the desire of the citizens of these countries to self-regulate their lives is not accompanied by the consideration for others that is necessary to contain a communicable infectious disease.

A further question: why didn’t Norway or the Baltic states pursue a policy of recommendations instead of restrictions and bans? Why did the Netherlands abandon a similar policy? In order to answer this question, we must look at another Hofstede dimension: how do people deal with the uncertainty of unknown and ambiguous situations? To what extent do they try to avoid uncertainty? Unlike Sweden and Denmark, neither Norway nor the Baltics nor the Netherlands are open to embracing change and dealing with new challenges. Instead, they feel stress and even fear when confronted with change. They tend to make rules with the intent of channeling the unknown, rather than because they think their fellow countrymen are incapable of consideration or of taking care of themselves. 

To find acceptance, a policy must accommodate the culture of its citizens in all dimensions. For the novel coronavirus, Sweden and Denmark were able to: (1) let people be responsible for themselves in dealing with a virus spreading from one person to another, because (2) these people are considerate of others who might get infected, and (3) these people are comfortable dealing with an unknown situation like this. With these three cultural values, Sweden and Denmark were able to pursue policies of recommendations – instead of the restrictions which were and still are necessary elsewhere.

Written by Thomas R. Koch

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