Sweden failed to protect elderly during pandemic, commission finds

Systemic shortcomings in Sweden’s elderly care coupled with inadequate measures from the government and agencies contributed to the country’s high COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes, an initial report by an official commission said on Tuesday.

Sweden’s pandemic strategy, which didn’t encourage lockdowns or wearing masks, has stood out internationally. It left schools, restaurants and businesses largely open while appealing to people to physically distance and maintain good hygiene.

When announced during the spring, the strategy was twinned with a goal to “ring-fence” the elderly from COVID-19. But as deaths mounted, especially at nursing homes, the commission was appointed to asses the response.

The commission said previously known structural problems within the elderly care system, for which authorities, regions, private caregivers and municipalities share responsibility, were to blame for the many deaths.

“But we want to say that it is the government that rules the country and has the ultimate responsibility,” Mats Melin, the commission chairman, told a news conference.

“The government should have taken measures to ensure the elderly care was better equipped to deal with the pandemic.”

The commission pointed to poorly educated staff and low levels of nurses and doctors in elderly care, and emphasized that past governments had also contributed to the shortcomings.

Divisive pandemic strategy

Sweden’s pandemic strategy has been called reckless and cruel but also earned praise for being more sustainable and business-friendly. Just under half of Sweden’s almost 7,700 coronavirus deaths have been nursing home residents.

The commission report said government measures to protect the elderly during the spring had come too late and were inadequate.

Pedestrians pass a sign asking people to maintain physical distance in Stockholm in November. Sweden’s pandemic strategy left schools, restaurants and businesses largely open while appealing to people to practise physical distancing and maintain good hygiene. (Fredrik Sandberg/TT News Agency/Reuters)

“The aspect of [the pandemic strategy] which centred on protecting the elderly failed. There is no other way to view the fact that so many died in COVID-19,” Melin said.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has defended the overall strategy but admitted Sweden failed to shield the elderly, though he stressed health and elderly care are the responsibility of regional authorities and not the central government.

In November, Sweden’s Health and Social Care Inspectorate said it had found “serious shortcomings” in elderly care — in only six per cent of cases reviewed were nursing home COVID-19 patients given a physical examination by a doctor.

Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said the Social Democrat and Green government was preparing new legislation to regulate elderly care.

Sweden has suffered many times more deaths per capita than its Nordic neighbours, although fewer than some European countries that opted for lockdowns.

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