The International media always try to depict Sweden as a “paradise on earth”, a Welfare State with almost total equality among the citizens. Nothing could be further from the truth. For more than three decades, privatisations and outsourcing of schools, hospitals, GP surgeries, as well as other sectors, like care for the elderly, has created a situation where the health sector has suffered from increased cuts. The corona crisis has clearly shown the cracks in this illusion. Today, the number of hospital beds in Sweden has decreased to one of the lowest levels in Europe.
Just as in the rest of the world, the development of the corona crisis in Sweden gives us a clear illustration of decomposing capitalist society in general, as well as of the criminal negligence of the bourgeoisie. Because Sweden has been regarded as a model for the “Welfare State” historically, the present crisis is the last nail in the coffin of this illusion.
Today, when Sweden is in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic, the chaos is increasing, with hospitals and Intensive Care Units overburdened. More than half a million have been infected by the virus and more than 10,000 dead in a population of around 10 million, spread over a vast geographical area. This is a clear contrast to countries like Norway and Finland, despite geographical similarities. The so called “Swedish strategy” with lesser restrictions and lock-downs, has certainly not spared the population. Today, the chaos is accelerating. The state and government are blaming the regions, responsible for providing health care, and the regions are blaming the local councils. In the midst of this stand the health workers, who just a couple of months ago were threatened by new lay-offs, when the first wave ended in the summer.
The roots of the present situation are to be found in the continuous slaughter of the health sector in Sweden since the 1990s. The process of “de-regulation” and privatisation of hospitals, all over the country but especially in Stockholm, has meant continuous cuts in hospital beds and staff. Protests among hospital workers and the local population have been common, especially in the North where local hospitals have been closed, where all kinds of patients, including pregnant women, must travel long distances to get to the nearest hospital.
The same development has been seen with the pharmacies, which has meant that essential stocks of medicines had disappeared from hospitals and pharmacies, largely due to the privatisation of the former state pharmacy monopoly (and a proliferation of private pharmacies), leading to disappearance of vital medications. The same development can be seen with the national stocks of essential medicines for crisis situations – this disappeared around the millennium.
At the same time, the situation in the elderly care sector has been worsening for decades (this has been the responsibility of the local councils since the beginning of the 1990s) and there have been lots of “scandals” in the media, often focusing on the situation in privatised nursing homes where basic hygiene routines have been neglected because of the overburdening of the workers. Many workers in these institutions have a precarious work situation, are called in at short notice and do not have a steady sickness insurance – so they can’t stay home if they are sick.
In fact, during the autumn 2019, massive protests took place in the hospitals in Stockholm after an announcement of major staffing cuts (doctors and nurses), protests that were gaining sympathy from the general public, both in Stockholm and in the rest of the country.
This was the situation in Sweden in the beginning of the year when the corona virus hit the country. The state and the responsible authorities, the regions (greater councils) and local councils were totally unprepared for the outbreak. Basically, there was no preparation, no stocks of medicine, masks or shields, no possibilities for testing and tracing.
Was there a conscious Swedish strategy?
The Swedish authorities’ strategy of avoiding lockdown has been both criticised and hailed in the rest of the world. In the beginning, the epidemiologists thought that there would not be any risk of the virus spreading outside Asia, then they discussed –behind closed doors– the possibility of acquiring a “herd immunity” in the population on the basis of models of influenza viruses (something they later denied) and adopted the policy of “recommendations” instead of “restrictions”. The Swedish Strategy has been marked by a certain ‘scientific arrogance’: “We are doing it right and the rest of the world is doing it wrong”. The main spokesman for this policy, former state epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, talked about “allowing” the virus to pass through the population– although he never talked about “herd immunity”. He was later got rid of because it turned out that he was, at the same time, on the payroll for advising certain “interested” corporations…
This whole approach led to a massive spread of the virus, especially in the care homes, and the workers were blamed. Those who were most exposed, such as bus and taxi drivers, had no protection and the virus spread rapidly in the immigrant communities in the suburbs. The authorities talked about “lack of information” and problems of housing, but no measures were taken to protect these workers. The main theme of this so-called strategy is that you, yourself, have the responsibility and it is your own fault if you get infected!
Now the authorities are trying to blame each another – the government blames the greater councils, and vice versa. Scientific experts openly criticise the Public Health Authority and the state epidemiologist for not recommending masks. As in the rest of the world, to “work from home” is only possible for professionals and a minority of employees, while the majority of the working class must use overcrowded public transport systems to go to work.
The myth of the Welfare State
Sweden has always been seen as an example of a smooth functioning Welfare State, with a history of social reforms, high levels of public spending and high levels of “trust” in authority and government. The corona crisis has revealed massive cracks in this façade, due to decades of cutting down and privatisations in the public sector. The cynicism of the Swedish bourgeoisie towards the elderly population reminds us of the dark side of the Swedish modernity project, when cynical experiments and sterilisation programmes were carried out until the 70s. The “Swedish strategy” has proved to be another cruel experiment. Today, all parts of the national bourgeoisie are happy about the good effects of the Swedish strategy for the Swedish economy – at the same time as unemployment is peaking at unprecedented levels. As usual, it is the working class that takes the blow, both at the level of disease and death, and on the level of attacks on its living conditions.