Life without lockdown in Stockholm

by Elsa Ohlen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 3 June 2020 17:03 GMT

People enjoy the warm evening at Sundspromenaden as the sign reads "In Malmo everything is near. But now we need to keep a distance" in Malmo, Sweden May 26, 2020. TT News Agency/Johan Nilsson via REUTERS

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Sweden has drawn international scrutiny for its hands-off approach to lockdown. What does that look like at a city level?

This article is part of a series on ways in which urban life is changing as cities ease their coronavirus lockdowns

By Elsa Ohlen 

LONDON, June 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

European nations are cautiously lifting coronavirus lockdowns and reopening their borders but Swedish authorities are doing little of the sort. Why? Because strict measures to curb COVID-19 were never enforced in the Scandinavian country.

Images of Swedes sunning themselves in parks in the capital Stockholm and eating out in restaurants during the peak of the pandemic in Europe have drawn international scrutiny of Sweden's hands-off approach.

Nearly 4,600 Swedes have died in the outbreak, a higher mortality rate than in Denmark, Norway and Finland, all of which implemented stricter lockdown measures. 

The architect of Sweden's lockdown policy on Wednesday said the country should have imposed more restrictions to avoid such a high death toll.  

Our correspondent breaks down the country's no-lockdown approach from its capital, Stockholm:

Has Stockholm enforced any lockdown measures?

Yes. Strict measures include a ban on gatherings of 50 people or more, the closure of high schools and university courses now taking place online. Visits to care homes are forbidden and people over 70 must stay at home.

Otherwise, Stockholmers are free to pursue normal activities from daily exercise to barbecues and use of public transport.

The government has encouraged social distancing in public places and good hygiene, entrusting residents to act on their advice without fear of punishment if they don't.

Are Stockholm residents changing how they live?

Despite the absence of a lockdown, life for many in Stockholm, a city of one million, has changed but on a voluntary basis.

Studies have shown a majority of Swedes comply with government advice, especially the elderly.

A mobility index by the transportation app Citymapper shows that Stockholmers reduced their movement to about 30% of normal activity since mid-March.

By comparison, cities under lockdown such as Paris, London, and New York saw movement cut to about 5-10%.

One sign of people adhering to social distancing on their own accord are gyms, restaurants and bars in Stockholm which remain open but are often empty, shunned by those fearful of the virus.

How has life in Stockholm been impacted?

Life has the semblance of normality. Cafes are open, serving coffee to customers inside rather than through hatches as seen elsewhere in Europe. Buses, trains and trams run and appear busy during rush hour.

But the ban on larger gatherings has ended sports events, theatre, cinema and other artistic performances as we know them. The Royal Swedish Opera has started live-streaming its performances for free.

People enjoy warm weather at the Tantolunden park as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Stockholm, Sweden May 30, 2020. TT News Agency/Henrik Montgomery via REUTERS

Has the soft-touch policy helped businesses survive?

It is likely too early to tell.

The government has forecast a negative GDP growth of 7% this year, the bleakest outlook for the economy since 1940.

That is despite government and private sector efforts to stimulate the economy and avoid mass layoffs.

About 76 000 people have lost their jobs since early March according to the Swedish Public Employment Service, mostly within the hotel and restaurant business, increasing unemployment to 8.4%.

Are there any indications the strategy has paid off from a public health perspective? 

It depends which countries you compare Sweden to.

Sweden is currently recording around 43 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

That is a similar rate to France, where stricter measures have been enforced and a lower rate than Belgium (83), Spain (58), Britain (58) and Italy (55) that all imposed comprehensive lockdowns in March.

But Sweden has suffered four times more coronavirus-related deaths than the rest of its Nordic neighbours combined.

Neighbouring Norway and Denmark last week opened their borders to each other but not to Sweden.

While the infection rate is declining across Europe, the decline has been slower in Sweden. Last week it had a higher number of coronavirus deaths per capita than any other country.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has said that Sweden is "not soft on the virus" and has compared the fight against COVID-19 to a marathon in which the results must be judged in the long-term.

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(Reporting by Elsa Ohlen, Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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