Commission: Sweden failed to protect elderly during pandemic

Health Watch

An public information sign wishing Merry Christmas and asking to maintain social distancing is seen in a pedestrian shopping street in Helsingborg, southern Sweden, on Monday Dec. 7, 2020. The last week in November, Helsingborg had more new confirmed Covid-19 cases than in any other city in Sweden, according to official figures. (Johan Nilsson / TT via AP)

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden’s government failed to sufficiently protect the elderly in care homes from COVID-19 and is ultimately responsible for the pandemic’s effects in the country, according to a stinging official report released Tuesday.

The Scandinavian country has stood out among European and other nations for the way it has handled the pandemic, for long not mandating lockdowns like others but relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty.

But an independent commission that looked into Sweden’s handling of the pandemic said Tuesday that Swedish elderly care has major structural shortcomings and authorities proved unprepared and ill-equipped to meet the pandemic. Nearly half the country’s COVID-19 deaths have been in care homes.

The head of the commission, Mats Melin, said the blame for structural shortcomings in Sweden’s health care system could be placed on several authorities and organizations.

“But we still want to say that the government governs the country and that the ultimate responsibility therefore rests with the government and previous governments,” Melin said.

While Swedish authorities reacted to the pandemic by advising people to practice social distancing, most schools, bars and restaurants have been kept open.

Yet, the country of just over 10 million has seen 341,029 confirmed infections and 7,667 virus-related deaths, a death toll much higher than in neighbors Norway, Finland or Denmark.

Despite Sweden having one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s government and chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell have defended the controversial coronavirus strategy as sustainable in the long-term. They have, however, admitted failures in their efforts to protect the elderly and nursing home residents.

Tuesday’s commission report said Sweden’s Nordic neighbors paid more attention to elderly citizens’ care during the pandemic.

“In the other Nordic countries … care for the elderly seems to have been more in focus in the authorities’ early pandemic measures,” the report said.

Sweden’s strategy had also been expected to spare the country a resurgence of the disease this fall, but earlier on Tuesday Prime Minister Lofven said health officials misjudged the impact of the latest wave of the pandemic.

“I think that most people in the profession didn’t see such a wave in front of them, they talked about different clusters,” Lofven told the Swedish Aftonbladet newspaper.

Sweden has seen a rapid increase in new coronavirus infections that strained its health care system. The virus has spread quickly among medical staff, pushing the government to back more restrictions, including a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. in bars and restaurants.

Sweden has also imposed its tightest virus restrictions to date by banning public gatherings of more than eight people.

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Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark and Jari Tanner in Helsinki, Finland contributed to this report.

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