A sign reminding customers about social distancing is placed at the entrance to a grocery store in central Stockholm.

Sweden’s pivot toward new virus restrictions may not 'shift mindsets,' says Swedish scientist

Lena Einhorn, a filmmaker and former virologist, was one of the early opponents of Sweden's more relaxed coronavirus strategy. She joins The World's host Marco Werman to talk about how Sweden's new virus restrictions may not be enough.

The World

Sweden's coronavirus strategy has been more relaxed than those of most of its European neighbors. The country never went into lockdown, and most of its restrictions were voluntary. 

Now, Sweden is seeing a new surge of cases — and it's pivoting toward stricter public health measures.

Related: Sweden and Denmark have taken two very different approaches to the coronavirus 

At 5,990, the number of new cases reported last week was the highest since the start of the pandemic. Forty-two deaths were also recorded, the most in about three months.

In response, public gatherings are now capped at eight people — down from 50.

At a press conference yesterday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven urged people not to go to gyms or libraries or host dinners. "Cancel," he said. 

Related: How does Sweden's pandemic response look today? 

Lena Einhorn, a filmmaker and former virologist, was one of the early opponents of Sweden's more relaxed coronavirus strategy. She joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about her opposition to Sweden's coronavirus strategy and having to shift from scientist to activist during the pandemic. 

Related: Sweden's handling of coronavirus drives some people to relocate 

Marco Werman: First of all, how surprised were you by this announcement? I mean, how big a shift do you think this is from Sweden's early approach? 

Lena Einhorn: It is and it isn't — because if you compare with our neighbors who have a really good handle on this, I mean, the other Nordic countries, of course, it's a step forward. But, you know, all the schools are open. We don't have any face mask recommendations in society at all. People can still gather en masse in malls. They're advised not to — but the prohibition is restricted to public gatherings. And that's not ... I mean, the restaurants are still open. 

So, are you saying very little has changed with this announcement and that this new approach is not going to shift any mindsets? 

Well, that is the issue — if it does shift mindsets — and it probably will. But from a legal perspective or compulsory perspective, it's not such a great shift. For instance, they still say you don't need a face mask in public transportation, but we should keep a distance. But how easy is it to keep a distance in public transportation in rush hour? It's not very easy. So, it all depends. If people take this to heart, then there may well be a significant shift. 

You've been very publicly opposed to your government's approach to the pandemic. Explain your opposition. 

This has been a long story. The first couple of months, what they didn't do is prepare at all because they were sure this was not going to be a problem outside of Southeast Asia. So that was the first mistake, they didn't prepare with protective gear or with testing capacity. The second mistake came when it was obvious that this was going to hit us and the other countries around us went into lockdown and Sweden did not. People have gathered that they were really after herd immunity. They have denied it through one side of their mouth and through the other, they say it would be a "bonus" with herd immunity. The next phase is the summer when we had, you know, Sweden is a sparsely populated country, we have 25 people per square kilometer. We have long, solid vacations. And so the numbers went down dramatically from the beginning of July. It looked really good until about the middle of September, which was a few weeks after school started. They knew we didn't have herd immunity, but they were still sort of dragging their feet. And now, in the last few weeks, we've had a very dramatic, steep rise in cases. We have a steeper rise than the United States right now. 

Explain, very briefly, herd immunity and is that what Sweden was trying to do? 

Well, this is what has been assumed based on some of their statements and from a lot of their emails. But they have denied it. But herd immunity is that such a large proportion of the population — and it has to be more than half, it varies on the contagiousness of the virus — a large proportion of the population has to have had the disease and be immune. And then the virus has so few people to hit ... which means that there are less and less people getting infected. So, they were hoping for a majority of Swedes sort of silently getting immune — but it didn't happen. 

What has it been like to live in Sweden? In Stockholm, when you see that your fellow citizens are not implementing best practices? 

People are people, you know, they follow their leaders. It's an unlucky combination of the very stubborn public health agency and the government that sort of obeys them largely. And so we've had only one voice and that voice has not been very wise — let's put it that way. So it's been very, very frustrating. 

When you're surrounded by lots of people not implementing best practices, have you, in turn, been more strict on yourself with certain things? Have you doubled down on being safe? 

Well, I am 66, so I have acted my age. I have been very careful and a lot of my friends have been very careful. But, you know, when people around you aren't, then you have to be extra careful. One thing you have to realize, going out in Stockholm, with a face mask, people look askance at you, so I hope that will change. It is slowly changing despite there not being any recommendation. And, you know, I'm in a big group of about 40 scientists and physicians who have been arguing against the Swedish policy ever since March and April. And we have been in the minority but we have kept at it. 

Finally, as I said, you used to be a virologist, today you're a filmmaker. In this realm — creating films — are you able to continue working? And what does the future look like for you? 

I'm writing a book right now and a film script. So, I am working. But this [activism] has really been 100%, more or less, since April, you know, writing and interviewing and participating in discussions and everything. It's taken up a lot, you know, when you feel really, really frustrated. What do you do? Well, you can either hide or you do something. And the people in this group, we call ourselves "Science Forum: COVID-19," and it's done in Swedish. All these people, we've turned into activists from being scientists. It's been a really interesting process. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

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