Right-wing media have championed Sweden’s “low-scale” approach to the coronavirus pandemic as an alternative to stricter government mandates deployed in the United States. On Fox News, pundits argued that Sweden’s policies would allow its population to swiftly reach “herd immunity” and questioned why the U.S. was “locking down” instead. Now that country is rushing to tighten restrictions following rapid increases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that are far in excess of those of its neighbors.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced on Monday a reduction in the limit on public gatherings from 50 people to eight, citing lack of voluntary compliance with health recommendations to the public, after last week announcing plans to ban alcohol sales after 10 p.m. nationwide. “It is a clear and sharp signal to every person in our country as to what applies in the future,” he said at a press conference. “Don’t go to the gym, don’t go the library, don’t have dinner out, don’t have parties — cancel!”
The country’s COVID-19 caseload has spiked dramatically in recent weeks, vastly outpacing its neighbors and approaching that of the U.S., and hospitalizations and fatalities have inevitably followed.
The spread of the virus in Sweden -- and its government’s admission that its voluntary approach to the pandemic isn’t stopping it -- is devastating to the arguments American conservatives made in opposing the implementation of public health restrictions in the U.S.
Since the early days of the pandemic, right-wing commentators have scrambled for any reason not to adopt the recommendations of public health experts, from wearing masks to limiting public gatherings to closing nonessential businesses. Some described the burgeoning crisis through the lens of the culture war, attacking the so-called elites who they claimed were trying to implement painful restrictions not in hopes of preventing mass death, but because they were power-mad tyrants.
Sweden provided a key element of their argument. The country’s response largely turned on voluntary compliance with public health recommendations, with the government never imposing a lockdown and keeping restaurants, bars, gyms, and other businesses open. The result was that Sweden suffered more COVID-19 deaths per capita than similarly situated countries without significantly better results for its economy. But right-wing media figures claimed in the spring that Sweden’s methods were succeeding, and thus that the harsher restrictions put into place in the U.S. were unnecessary and causing economic devastation for no reason.
Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson, for example, lashed out at Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in April, claiming:
Sweden has never, unlike Gov. Whitmer and so many American states, adopted the Chinese model, the authoritarian model in order to contain coronavirus, yet so far Sweden has fewer cases of coronavirus and fewer deaths than the state of Michigan does. Huh. Does the governor of Michigan know this? Does she care? No. That suggests it's about science, but it's not. And you know that by now. It's about power.
Laura Ingraham, Carlson’s prime-time colleague, was another champion of the Swedish model. She and her guests argued that one of the reasons Sweden’s method was superior was that the virus would quickly rip through the population, allowing the country to quickly reach “herd immunity” and no longer need to worry about the pandemic.
As early as April 23, Ingraham claimed that “herd immunity will be reached in about two, three weeks perhaps in Sweden” and that the country would then be “kind of done” with the virus.
“That's why we shouldn't pay too much attention to comparisons of cases and deaths right now, because almost every other country except Sweden has just postponed deaths,” replied her guest, the Swedish libertarian Johan Norberg.
In early July, another Ingraham guest, the cardiologist Dr. Ramin Oskoui claimed that “Sweden was smart” because “herd immunity has developed” there and the country also had better economic results.
A few weeks after that, the right-wing “COVID contrarian” Alex Berenson also praised Sweden’s response on Ingraham’s program. He claimed that Sweden “may have actually gotten” to herd immunity “or close to there because deaths and ICU admissions are very low this month.”
The ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases makes it very clear that Sweden did not reach herd immunity in the spring, summer, or fall. The Fox coronavirus pundits were wrong. There was no easy alternative pathway to stopping the pandemic, a way to prevent mass death without wearing a mask or doing anything else public health experts recommend.
But as those months went by, Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and fellow at a right-wing think tank, was making the rounds on Fox. His appearances, in which he praised President Donald Trump’s response to the virus and downplayed the danger posed by the pandemic, quickly attracted the president’s attention. Trump plucked Atlas from Fox’s green room and placed him on the White House coronavirus task force, where he quickly amassed power, crowded out the panel’s actual experts, and began pushing for the U.S. to end restrictions and try to reach herd immunity.
Three weeks ago, with Sweden’s case counts increasing but hospitalizations and deaths still flat, he praised the country for not tightening restrictions.
“#FactsMatter… at least in Sweden,” he tweeted.