Sweden’s cardinal has questioned the government’s refusal to implement a strict coronavirus lockdown.

– “Many people are very worried”

“Not being an expert, it’s difficult to judge, but I would say that many people here in Sweden are very worried and, also, the authorities have recognised that we have not been able to give elderly people the protection they needed”, Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm denounced May 7 to the Catholic News Service.

As of last Thursday, the Scandinavian country had confirmed 23,918 cases of COVID-19 and had recorded 2,941 deaths from the virus.

Over half of those deaths had occurred among elderly residents in nursing homes.

With a population of some ten million people, Sweden has been hit with more infections and deaths than neighbours Denmark (10,281 cases and 506 deaths), Norway (7,996 cases and 216 deaths) and Finland (5,573 cases and 252 deaths), taking into account the fact that those three countries have around half the population.

That high human toll in Sweden has led some to question whether the country’s strategy of pursuing “herd immunity” to COVID-19 – where the virus is allowed to run its course in people who don’t develop symptoms, supposedly as a way of protecting more vulnerable segments of the population – has been the right one to follow.

On May 7 Sweden’s state epidemiologist and the country’s COVID-19 response leader, Anders Tegnell, defended to CNBC the advice he had given the government that had led to the herd immunity approach.

“Of course, there is a huge regret over the fatalities that we’ve had but we’re not really clear how that could have been avoided”, Tegnell admitted.

“We know that [elderly care home] settings are very vulnerable in this kind of situation and we’re not sure that doing something different would make a huge difference to that”, the scientist said.

– Church has been “a bit more strict” than government in response to pandemic

As part of its laissez-faire approach to the virus, Sweden’s government has allowed schools, restaurants, bars and other businesses to remain open during the pandemic, though it did ban gatherings of more than fifty people at the start of the crisis and encourage people to work from home.

But Cardinal Arborelius said that reflecting on the high mortality rate “there is a discussion going on here in Sweden: Is this really a good thing to do?”

In his Stockholm diocese, the cardinal added, the Church had opted to be “a bit more strict” than the government and close catechism classes for children and young adults, even if some churches embraced the fifty-person limit on social gatherings to return quickly to public Masses after Easter.

– Appeal to “open the eyes of the government” to virus’ impact on migrants, homeless

Apart from its hands-off approach to social distancing, Arborelius lamented to CNS that the government had had another blind spot in its response to the pandemic: the health and economic impact of the virus on migrants and the homeless.

“We can say that we [the Church] try to do what we can, but we also see [that] there are needs. Many of the undocumented immigrants are also Catholic and they have lost work, they have lost housing”, the cardinal denounced.

He added that he and other Christian leaders in Sweden had addressed an open letter to Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Social Minister Lena Hallengren May 4 seeking to “open the eyes of the government” to the virus’ impact on society’s weakest.

“Human rights must apply to all people living in our country without distinction”, that letter of the Christian leaders implored.

“Churches and the majority of civil society does what it can.

“Churches, like the virus, make no distinction between citizens and noncitizens. Neither can the public – state, municipalities and authorities. That’s why we demand action now!”

Explaining the letter, Arborelius deplored the fact that Sweden is “a very bureaucratic country and if you don’t have any papers, you don’t exist”.

“That was our concern and now we hope that the government will react and try to do something for this vulnerable group of people”, he added.

More news from Sweden on Novena:

Nordic Lutheran, Catholic bishops cry out on corona, migrant crises: “A virus must be combated, but not people seeking refuge”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.