Sweden’s relaxed approach to lockdown has surprised the world, now officials admit the country made mistakes in the early weeks of the virus taking hold.
A top Swedish official is saying lessons should be learned from tackling the coronavirus pandemic and Sweden could maybe have acted “a little faster.”
In a radio interview, Dan Eliasson, head of Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency told Swedish radio Monday that “when major crises occur, you will always look at it afterwards. So comes the question, did we react fast enough?”
His comments come after Health Minister Lena Hallengren last month told Swedish television that “we failed to protect our elderly. That’s really serious and a failure for society as a whole. We have to learn from this.”
Sweden famously opted not to adopt a strict lockdown like its Nordic neighbours and has suffered a higher death rate in the initial weeks of the pandemic.
Swedish media in recent weeks have reported cases where retirement homes have seen a large death toll with staff continuing to work despite a lack of protective gear or despite exhibiting symptoms and potentially infecting residents.
Some retirement homes also have been seen shortage of staff because employees either have refused to work and have been encouraged to stay home even with mild symptoms.
Sweden’s soft approach has caught international attention. Large gatherings were banned but restaurants and schools for younger children have stayed open. The government has urged social distancing, and Swedes have largely complied.
The country has reported more than 3,175 fatalities and 90 per cent of those who had died as of April 28 were above the age of 70, according to official figures. Half were nursing home residents, and another quarter were receiving care at home.
‘STAFF SPREAD THE VIRUS’
Bjorn Branngard, whose mother died in a Stockholm nursing home, told AFP staff didn’t take time to take care of her and she died of neglect as staff spread the virus around the home.
Unlike many European countries, Sweden has kept its primary schools open as well as bars and restaurants, while urging people to respect social distancing and hygiene recommendations.
It did, however, ban visits to care homes on March 31.
Sweden’s Nordic neighbours also introduced bans around the same time, but have recorded far fewer care home deaths.
But unlike in those countries, Swedish nursing homes are often large complexes with hundreds of residents.
They are only available to those in very poor health and unable to care for themselves, and residents are therefore “a very vulnerable group”, according to Henrik Lysell of the Board of Health and Welfare.
Bjorn Branngard told AFP the personnel at his mother’s home did not have proper protective gear.
“There was no protection. The personnel were going between different sections and spreading the virus.” In greater Stockholm, the epicentre of Sweden’s virus spread, 55 per cent of nursing homes have so far confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to Region Stockholm health authorities.
POOR WORKING CONDITIONS
Kommunal, Sweden’s largest union for municipal employees which includes many care workers, has meanwhile blamed precarious working conditions for the unfolding tragedy.
It said that in March, 40 per cent of staff at Stockholm nursing homes were unskilled workers employed on short-term contracts, with hourly wages and no job security, while 23 per cent were temps.
In other words: people who often can’t afford not to go to work even if they’re sick.
“There are a lot of different people who work at several nursing homes, and that also leads to a greater spread,” the head of Kommunal’s nursing home division, Ulf Bjerregaard, said.
At the end of April, Kommunal filed a complaint to the Swedish Work Environment Authority, claiming that 27 of the 96 residents at the home where Branngard’s mother lived had so far died of the virus, and yet staff were not being provided protective gear or offered testing.
The authority is studying the complaint, and prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation.
Abdullah, a pseudonym for a 21-year-old refugee who didn’t want to disclose his real name, has worked as an assistant in a care home outside Stockholm for two years.
He told AFP about a resident treated in hospital for a broken leg. “She tested negative for the virus when she was with us. When she returned from the hospital three days later, she was positive,” he said.
“We had protective aprons but no masks when we were working with her,” he said, adding that he has since refused to go to work.
The Public Health Agency meanwhile said efforts to improve basic hygiene routines in the homes were paying off.
“Stockholm has actually had a clear decrease in cases (in nursing homes), that feels positive,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told reporters on Thursday.