Swedish lessons for India

As India opts for that nation’s style of opening up, albeit with some constraints, a massive challenge lies ahead. Compliance is difficult given our socio-economic and cultural gaps

As the world responds differently to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many nations enforcing severe “lockdown” norms, Sweden opted for a more lenient approach that entailed just behavioural recommendations at the individual level. Its approach was controversial but not necessarily reckless and was deliberately calibrated and predicated on the logic of “herd immunity” even as this was not as such made official.

The management of the COVID crisis was sought on the underlying principle that the citizenry would cooperate with the Government in a disciplined, patient and solidarity fashion, one that defines the Swedish way of life and conditions. A near political consensus among major political parties to pursue this revolutionary approach garnered popular support. Unlike other Scandinavian countries, Sweden did not enforce widespread lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gatherings of more than 50 people were banned, interaction with people over 70 years of age was limited. At the same time, bar and restaurants were allowed to provide table service and online learning for high schools was enforced even as schools for younger children stayed open. Everything else continued as before and the Government undertook basic precautions and relied on common sense of the citizens and discretion of the “rational humanitarians” as Swedes are popularly known to be.

Debate abounds about the “success” and “failure” of the Swedish approach to counter the novel virus. With a death toll of 449 per million inhabitants, Sweden’s fatality rate was much higher compared to 45 in Norway, 100 in Denmark and 58 in Finland. But Swedes remained committed to work ethics and protected their export-driven economy from crippling under the grip of the “lockdown.” Lessons of the economic slowdown in the early 1990s reverberated all across the nation. While the verdict on the Swedish approach is still out as we weigh the pros and cons, the rest of the world — especially India which had earlier punted on the “lockdown” approach — is now willy-nilly opting for this strategy.

Reality is that India’s war against COVID-19 has not progressed as was planned initially. We have not as yet flattened the “curve.” There has been a steep rise in the number of COVID positive cases. Testing numbers, too, are very low. Yet, socio-economic pressure or the sheer “unsustainability” of the lockdown (after four extensions) compelled the Government to declare “Unlock 1.0,” which relies on societal compliance of various recommendations and more stringent conditions. A phased “exit” has allowed unrestricted movement of goods and people, inter and intra-State.

Movement has been allowed even as the Coronavirus spread puts densely populated areas on high alert. Metro cities such as Delhi and Mumbai are running out of hospital beds. This may well be fait accompli in many ways, given the horrific experience of the migrant workers, the capitulation of the MSME sector and agrarian pressure, all of which have forced the inevitable “unlocking.” The operative expression is no longer about “flattening the curve” but “managing” and “living with the virus.” This is somewhat akin to Sweden but can we replicate the Swedish model and better still, imbibe lessons and improve on the same?

First things first, the phenomenon of “social distancing” is based on the availability of basic space to manoeuvre and operate. Sweden has a population density of less than 23 people/km2 as compared to over 412 people/km2 in India. So, while the urban clusters of Stockholm remain the epicentre of the Swedish challenge, it pales into insignificance when compared to the squalid conditions of slum areas like Dharavi in Mumbai, where families of seven to eight people can reside in single-room pigeonhole-like chawls. This space squeeze also extends to the Indian commercial realm — be it in terms of manufacturing or services — as the manpower-intensive industrial framework optimises space with considerably lesser sensitivity towards working conditions.

However, there’s also a politico-cultural context that sets apart the Swedish landscape from the Indian reality. Much of our non-compliance to governmental advisories stems from a misplaced sense of entitlement and disdain for the authorities. Whereas in Sweden, there is an overarching deference to the word of the authority, science-based guidelines and civic respect for others. The subliminal Jantelagen principle at play in the Swedish psyche is in sharp contrast to the VVIP culture or “exempted” culture in India that allows dangerous liberties to be taken by a chosen few.

Further, the commonality of single-person households and non-religious society helps the Swedish context. In India, households are substantially larger. Among the foremost places to be “unlocked” here in India were places of worship, which naturally draw large crowds.

Lastly, and most importantly, the containment and communication strategy in Sweden was entrusted to the nation’s epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. Back home, the country’s hyper-active federal structure has ensured that politicians, bureaucrats and even godmen issue a variety of guidelines and opinion shows, all of which comes wrapped with political and personal agenda when fact-based information dissemination should be the order of the day.

Despite Sweden’s much-bandied approach, it, too, has not been a shining example of managing the pandemic successfully (unlike a New Zealand). This despite favourable ground conditions supporting its unique approach.

As India enters the default Swedish style of “opening up”, albeit with some constraints, a massive challenge lies ahead. That of socio-economic and cultural differences vis-à-vis Sweden. This poses another challenge. The so-called “flattening of the curve” and the mathematical benefit of “herd immunity” is yet to be established in Sweden. So with the questionable efficacy of the liberalised Swedish model, India will have to “manage” the crisis somehow and bide its time until a pharmacological solution is found. The so-called COVID relief package in India is in close proximity to the much-criticised Swedish package that is replete with loans and subsidies and much lesser quantum for direct payments or for building medical infrastructure. Thankfully, certain lessons, like the importance of using a face mask, has been drilled into the Indian psyche. On the other hand, the Swedish populace did not pay much importance to it.

Indeed, the importance of “securing” vulnerable sections, for example the migrant and the aged population, has been felt in India since the inception of the Corona crisis. The only thing that India needs to do differently from what it has been doing until now is to have a unified “voice” and policy framework and rational, science-based conversations. Unfortunately, even with strict enforcement of advisories, if left to the citizens, the situation can worsen considerably.

(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

Source: The Pioneer