The New York Times reporter who offered “Sweden’s apparent success in handling the scourge without an economically devastating lockdown” (4/28/20) as a model for other nations grappling with the coronavirus is now writing about how Swedes are no longer allowed to visit other Scandinavian countries—and explaining it in a way that minimizes having to acknowledge how much he sold deadly snake oil to New York Times readers.
Back in late April, Times reporter Thomas Erdbrink was reporting (with Christina Anderson) that “Sweden does seem to have been as successful in controlling the virus as most other nations,” even though it “defied conventional wisdom and refused to order a wholesale lockdown to ‘flatten the curve’ of the coronavirus epidemic.” Erdbrink and Anderson painted a glowing portrait of “younger Swedes throng[ing] bars, restaurants and a crowded park last week, drinking in the sun”:
They laughed and basked in freedoms considered normal in most parts of the world not long ago, before coronavirus lockdowns, quarantines and mass restrictions upended social norms. As other nations in Europe begin to consider reopening their economies, Sweden’s experience would seem to argue for less caution, not more.
FAIR (4/30/20) noted at the time that this was dangerous nonsense, pointing out that Sweden at the time had the tenth-highest cumulative rate of death from Covid-19 in the world. (It’s now fifth among countries with populations over 10 million.) FAIR’s post observed that Sweden’s Scandinavian “neighbors’ rates of death from Covid-19 have been far lower: Norway and Finland’s have been one-sixth as high, while more densely populated Denmark has had one-third as many deaths per capita.”
Jump forward two months, and those neighbors have gotten their Covid-19 outbreaks under control, while the pandemic still rages unabated in Sweden. The result is that Scandinavia’s traditionally porous borders have been closed; as Erdbrink writes, in “Sweden Tries Out a New Status: Pariah State” (6/22/20):
This year, Swedes are forbidden to enter Norway.
And Norway isn’t the only Scandinavian neighbor barring Swedes from visiting this summer. Denmark and Finland have also closed their borders to Swedes, fearing that they would bring new coronavirus infections with them.
Explaining this decision, Erdbrink presents it as a retrospective issue:
While those countries went into strict lockdowns this spring, Sweden famously refused, and now has suffered roughly twice as many infections and five times as many deaths as the other three nations combined, according to figures compiled by the New York Times.
While reporting differences can make comparisons inexact, the overall trend is clear, as is Sweden’s new status as Scandinavia’s pariah state.
The epidemiologist behind Sweden’s disastrous coronavirus policy—described as “widely admired for his determinedly maverick approach”—is allowed to make a case that this is unfair discrimination:
Swedish officials, including the architect of the country’s measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Anders Tegnell, are not amused. They say Swedes have been stigmatized by an international campaign to prove Sweden was wrong…. Mr. Tegnell also said that infections in Sweden “had peaked,” and were now falling, a trend reflected in the Times’ figures.
(Erdbrink continues to take seriously Tegnell’s “herd immunity” bullshit—see FAIR.org, 5/27/20—though it’s repackaged in different language. The doctor “warn[s] their neighbors that they are going to be much more vulnerable if a second wave of the virus hits in the fall,” he reports, quoting Tegnell boasting, “We are really confident that our immunity is higher than any other Nordic country’s.” Tegnell claims this “is contributing to lower numbers of patients needing hospitalization, as well as fewer deaths per day.” Actually, Sweden’s case fatality rate—deaths per recognized case of Covid—is 8.4%, far higher than Denmark’s 4.8%, Finland’s 4.6% or Norway’s 2.8%.)
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde is also allowed to argue that Sweden is being treated unfairly:
“It is sad and frustrating that regions on the borders were so easy to close,” said Ms. Linde. She pointed to southern Sweden, where coronavirus infections were much lower than in bordering Denmark. Nevertheless, she said, “suddenly there were border guards” on the bridge connecting the two countries.
“That will take time to heal, it was too harsh,” she added. “It is very difficult to understand. There were far more deaths in Copenhagen.”
The brief rebuttal to this Swedish self-pity is likewise framed in terms of cumulative deaths. “Experts in the other Scandinavian countries say…such talk misses a major point,” Erdbrink writes:
“When you see 5,000 deaths in Sweden and 230 in Norway, it is quite incredible,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and the former director of the World Health Organization…. “It will take a lot to even out this difference a year or two into the future.”
But the argument for closing Scandinavia’s borders doesn’t rest on how many Swedes died in the past; rather, it’s the number who are currently getting infected with the coronavirus that is of great concern to its neighbors—and should be. As of June 22, Sweden was averaging 90.5 new cases a day per million residents; this was 12 times the rate of infection in Denmark, 32 times the rate in Norway and fully a hundred times as many people as were catching the virus in Finland:
Given that Sweden is still in the midst of an uncontrolled outbreak, it’s no wonder that countries that have made great sacrifices to virtually halt the spread of the coronavirus within their borders are unwilling to allow Swedes to wander about their countries without restriction. Yet Erdbrink gives credence to the idea that the closures are related not to health concerns, but to “resentments and differences that usually are obscured by a Scandinavian sense of mutual identity and niceness.”
“Sweden is a sort of regional hegemon, and, its critics say, given to a certain arrogance and exceptionalism that can be grating,” he writes, suggesting that its neighbors are jealous of Sweden having “successful brands like Volvo, Ikea and H&M, as well as the band ABBA.” The story closes with Swedish journalist Asa Linderborg moaning: “We are supposed to sit here in our corner of shame, and the worst part is that you’re savoring it…. All Norwegians, all Danes and all Finns are loving that the Swedes aren’t welcome anywhere.”
A reporter’s effort to put the happiest face on coverage that hasn’t aged well wouldn’t matter so much if the New York Times hadn’t been one of the most prestigious news outlets pointing to Sweden as a model for a “what me—worry?” approach to the coronavirus. This reporting, ridiculous in real time, contributed to the premature reopening of states shut down to curb Covid-19—and thus is partially responsible for the fact that the US too faces a resurgence in infection rates, to the point where the European Union is talking about barring travel from the United States until we get our outbreak under control.
The New York Times story (6/23/20) on the EU’s prospective ban on US visitors is actually much better than its coverage of Scandinavia’s ostracism of Sweden—making it clear that it’s infection rates, not “resentments and differences,” that make Europeans wary of American travelers. Perhaps reporter Matina Stevis-Gridneff doesn’t have any embarrassing celebrations of a lackadaisical approach to the coronavirus that she needs to live down.
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