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Coronavirus: Finland’s cautious lockdown vs Sweden’s laidback approach

Esplanadi Park in central Helsinki was fairly quiet even until May 2020

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Sweden has paid a heavy price for its ineffective approach in contrast with Finland, where more stringent measures have stemmed the spread of the coronavirus. Benedict Lopez writes.  

Despite being neighbours with some social similarities, Finland and Sweden adopted vastly different methods in confronting the coronavirus pandemic. 

Their differing ways of confronting this virulent disease resulted in a wide gap in the number of infections and deaths in both Scandinavian countries. Finland opted for a cautious lockdown; it has reported over 7,300 infections and more than 300 deaths. In contrast, Sweden embraced a laidback attitude; it has now over 78,500 confirmed infections and nearly 5,700 deaths.  

Locking down the Finnish way showed results

Market square was quiet and calm in May 2020

Finland confronted the pandemic relatively well by imposing a state of emergency, through enforcement of the Emergency Powers Act for the first time in Finnish history in March – though this was recently lifted. Life in Finland is slowly returning to normal, but the government still closely monitors the situation, watching out for the possibility of a second wave.

The lockdown restrictions in Finland were not stringent compared with the UK, France, Italy and Spain due to legal implications. The government has exercised caution by not encroaching on the fundamental rights and civil liberties of the people.

The positive attribute of the lockdown was that Finland’s digital economy gained momentum during the pandemic, with business costs expected to be lowered because of virtual meetings instead of conventional ones. Restaurants, libraries, swimming pools, museums and other public places were closed. The country’s borders were impassable, except for those returning from abroad.

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The Finnish government’s strategy was aimed at avoiding any overstraining of the country’s healthcare system while protecting high-risk groups like senior citizens.

Finland later eased the restrictions by lifting border controls on flights and ferry services from six neighbouring countries: Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway.

Other border controls were later lifted from 13 July, allowing free entry from countries such as Germany and Italy. But travel from neighbouring Sweden continues to be restricted. Border controls also remain in place for travel from countries such as France, the UK and Spain.

Finland aims to provide instructions for installing a mobile app for contact tracing, which is expected to be launched in August. In this way, all Finns can effectively complement the government’s efforts in preventing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic by complying with travel recommendations and hygiene requirements.

From 1 July 2020, the government has allowed the organisation of large public events. Events held in enclosed outdoor spaces will be limited to a maximum of 500 people until 31 July. This threshold can be exceeded under exceptional circumstances eg functions at outdoor venues with several sections or delineated areas that enable the organiser to place up to 500 attendees in each separate area.

The Finnish government will cease announcing age-based recommendations for avoiding physical contact. The advice now is to exercise discretion, taking into account the prevailing situation and risk factors. This is because of the adverse physical, emotional and social effects on people aged over 70.

Finns’ affiliation with nature also changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As the cautious lockdown eased during spring, people gradually ventured into the open air, especially to national and public parks.

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Rhododendron Park in Helsinki was a popular destination when flowers were blooming in early June. Generally people in Finland were visiting nature destinations more during the lockdown as public places were closed

With social distancing being observed, one of the scarce choices Finns had for leisure activities was to be in harmony with nature. Close to 30% of students considered national parks and other protected areas to be very important to them, compared with only 11% in 2018.

The government has reminded people they have the right to leave Finland, though it still advises its citizens to avoid unnecessary travel overseas, other than to neighbouring counties.

Sweden’s relaxed, ineffective ways proved costly

In contrast, Sweden resorted to merely advising its citizens to practise voluntary social distancing, observe self-isolation of the sick, limit the size of gatherings and close some schools.

Unlike other Western Europe countries, Sweden opted against a full lockdown, keeping most schools and nearly all businesses open while seeking mostly voluntary restrictions and recommendations on social distancing.

Sweden’s laidback approach in dealing with the coronavirus is a manifestation of the Scandinavian country’s individuality, faith in its institutions and trust in its people to act with responsibility. The government felt the people need not be coerced into a lockdown.

Regrettably, crowded streets, packed train stations and popular play parks revealed a different story. The relaxed approach backfired.

The legal framework within which the Swedish government operates does not directly allow it to enforce draconian methods, such as a nationwide lockdown.

The outbreak comes at an awkward time for Swedish authorities as nationwide travel restrictions were eased recently. Sweden’s Nordic neighbours have kept their borders closed to Sweden, citing the high level of spread.

Redundancies in Finland are much lower than in Sweden. Companies in Finland retain their employees, if possible, while in Sweden, layoffs are made swiftly.

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View of Helsinki Cathedral (Tuomiokirkko) from Sofiankatu

In Finland, workers have been laid off temporarily, which is defined as the suspension of pay and work but not termination of employment contract. Employees are entitled to unemployment benefits during the layoff period. In Sweden, a temporary laid-off worker continues to be paid by the employer.

According to June forecasts, both Finland and Sweden are projected to have their GDPs contract by around 6% in 2020.

Kiitos to my Finnish friend, SS, from Helsinki who provided me with some input and took the photos for this article.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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