A Tale Of Two Pandemics

The Nordic response to COVID-19 reveals a dark side of consensus politics.

Natalie Foss for Noema Magazine
Fabrizio Tassinari is the executive director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy and a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow. His book on governance lessons from the Nordic model, from which this essay is adapted, will come out in the spring of 2021.

“I actually feel pretty comfortable in New York. I get scared, like, in Sweden,” mumbled Lou Reed, the legendary frontman of the Velvet Underground, while playing the disheveled city-dweller in the 1995 movie “Blue in the Face.” “It’s kind of empty, they’re all drunk, everything works. If you stop at a traffic light and don’t turn your engine off, people come over and talk to you about it. You go to the medicine cabinet and open it up, and there’ll be a little poster saying: ‘In case of suicide, call …’ You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York? No.”

This droll monologue hints at how Nordic societies are different — or at least how they are perceived by outsiders to be different. They are distinctive in ways that border on the inhuman, or perhaps the post-human. Some years ago, two Swedish authors even wrote a book asking the disturbing question: “Are the Swedes humans?”

At the same time, when it comes to the Nordic countries themselves, the casual observer is instinctively drawn to their commonalities. A historical, cultural and, in some cases, even a linguistic proximity — as well as similar material conditions such as healthcare, demographics, state capacity and political stability — make these lands often indistinguishable to outsiders.

So, when a cataclysmic crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, one might assume that each of the Nordic countries would be equally well prepared to respond effectively. On this latter count, however, the evidence so far is confounding: Neighbors such as Sweden and Denmark took drastically different approaches to their coronavirus responses, with a quest for herd immunity in the former case and draconian lockdowns in the latter case. Supposedly very close in their underlying social and political structures, and making decisions on the basis of evidence, science and rigorous public management, Sweden and Denmark nonetheless adopted wildly divergent responses.

We rightly deplore the incompetence and arrogance that has characterized COVID crisis management in authoritarian or populist-run states like Brazil, India and the United States. Erratic leadership, improvisation and hundreds of thousands of deaths present damning indictments of the failures of these regimes.

But the performance of supposedly ideally governed countries such as the Nordics has hardly been uniformly strong. By ratcheting up the pressure for rapid response, the pandemic put their well-honed governance mechanisms under stress. It revealed inconsistencies and laid bare some of the most blatant contradictions of democratic governance, in ways not far from those described by Lou Reed.

The Pioneers & The Pandemic

The five Nordic countries — Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland — are often identified as the countries where democratic governance has delivered its most impressive feats. The region is a geographical frontier, defined by unforgiving weather and dark winters. But it is also a kind of existential frontier: a welfare paradise, blessed with universal healthcare and free education — the El Dorado of Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Northern European states consistently top all sorts of global rankings: from competitiveness to equality, transparency and happiness. For political scientists of a liberal-democratic bent, these countries are a metonymy for the virtuous society, polities that anticipate trends and that many would like to imitate. The holy grail of governance, as Francis Fukuyama famously put it, is “getting to Denmark.”

Nevertheless, the Nordic states experienced very different approaches and outcomes to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider the cases of Denmark and Sweden. The Danish government, not unlike Finland and Norway, was among the first to impose drastic coronavirus-related restrictions. This was not a total lockdown as in the case of Italy or Spain; for months after the virus struck, visitors might have been perplexed by the absence of facemasks in most public places.

At the same time, Copenhagen introduced some of the most radical border closures and travel restrictions. I was returning from Germany in May, for example, and agents at the Danish border demanded detailed evidence for why I wanted to enter the country that I had called home for the better part of the past two decades. So far-reaching were the measures of Copenhagen’s government that the director-general of the Danish Health Authority, Søren Brostrøm, felt compelled to dissociate himself from the travel ban, declaring it a political, rather than scientific, measure.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s justification left little to interpretation: “If we have to wait for evidence-based knowledge in relation to the coronavirus, we will quite simply come too late.” The Danish approach involved the imposition of restrictions and the expansion of state authority in ways more reminiscent of places like Taiwan or Singapore that helped flatten the curve of the contagion by means of mass surveillance, contact tracing and stringent quarantine enforcements.

When the exit from lockdown was eventually rolled out, most European countries settled on a gradual reopening of industrial activities, aiming to restart disrupted supply chains. Denmark’s Social Democrat-led government chose a different tack, reopening kindergartens and elementary schools before anything else, referencing those who could not afford private childcare.

“Social cohesion and trust run so deep that the Swedish and Danish governments might well have swapped their very different COVID strategies and still retained support.”

In contrast, Sweden’s approach could easily be mistaken for the populist denialism of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Donald Trump in the U.S. While it enacted a number of targeted closures, such as schools for over-16s, the government in Stockholm deliberately left social life to proceed as normally as possible. Following a mostly volunteer-based approach, the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven declared: “We who are adults need to be exactly that: adults. Not spread panic or rumors. No one is alone in this crisis, but each person carries a heavy responsibility.”

With implicit reference to the controversial “herd immunity” approach, the Swedish government allowed bars, gyms, shops and restaurants to remain open, counting on a modern and efficient healthcare service to provide protection. At the same time, it relied on social and cultural habits: Even before the coronavirus contagion hit, an estimated two-thirds of the Swedish population already worked from home at least some of the time, and over half of Swedish households are occupied by one person. As former Prime Minister Carl Bildt joked: “Swedes, especially of the older generation, have a genetic disposition to social distancing.” Even so, some observers lambasted Sweden’s obstinacy as unconscionable.

The difference in results between the Danish and Swedish approaches has been stark. With nearly 600 COVID-19 deaths per million inhabitants (as of early October 2020), Sweden’s toll has been five times higher than Denmark and about 10 times higher than Norway or Finland. At the same time, in terms of preventing economic disruption, the results have been slightly worse in Sweden than in Denmark (Sweden’s economy contracted by 8.6% and Denmark’s by 7.4% in the second quarter of 2020) and worse than in either Norway or Finland. Declines in consumer spending have also been similar in Sweden and Denmark (25% and 29% respectively).

While this might seem a damning indictment of the Swedish approach, by the fall of 2020, the rate of new infections in Sweden was similar to that of Denmark and some other European countries that imposed lockdowns. In the words of Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist behind Sweden’s unusual approach: “In the end, we will see how much difference it will make to have a strategy that’s more sustainable, that you can keep in place for a long time, instead of the strategy that means that you lock down, open up and lock down over and over again.”

“Nordic Noir novels contrast the apparently bland, conformist surfaces of the Nordic societies and the accounts of murder, misogyny and racism they depict as lurking beneath those surfaces.”

The plethora of “known unknowns” and “black swans” that COVID-19 has unleashed might seem to counsel against drawing premature conclusions. But nine months since the start of the pandemic in Europe, it is hard to remain agnostic in the face of data such as the Swedish death rate, which is comparable to countries such as Brazil or the U.S., whose COVID crisis management has been universally derided.

More than that, it is eye-opening to see how Swedish government officials justify these results, with one explaining that staying open was necessary in order for people to be able to continue living a “normal life.” One needn’t be a cynic to conclude that the Swedish government resolved that thousands of mostly elderly casualties were a price worth paying in order to spare the rest of the population from the disruption and uncertainties of a lockdown.

This tale of these two Nordic approaches to COVID-19 shows how similar countries can make dramatically different choices about how to balance the tradeoff between liberty and security. In a paradoxical way, however, the radically different approaches taken by the Swedish and Danish governments reflect a deeper underlying similarity: These are countries whose populations are among the most trusting in the world. They display an unusual confidence in the state and its institutions. Social cohesion and trust run so deep that the Swedish and Danish governments might well have swapped their very different COVID strategies and still retained public support. Their respective publics would have debated the uses and abuses of scientific evidence, the health costs and the economic consequences, but in the end, the citizens would likely accept any choice their government made.

The government’s measures did cause complaints and objections, especially in Sweden, but there was nothing like the angry protests and rejections of government advice — for example, over the use of personal protective equipment — that over the last half-year has roiled countries from Germany to the U.S. Citizens and political parties alike largely respected governmental decisions that seemed congruent with technocratic decision-making practices.

Put another way, the COVID-19 pandemic has both revealed what makes the Nordic model tick and, at the same time, has laid bare its darker side.

“In the 1970s, British journalist Roland Huntford went as far as decrying the Nordics as ‘the new totalitarians.’”
The Nordic Middle & Nordic Noir

The Nordic countries had their own Alexis de Tocqueville. In the 1930s, a young American correspondent (and later Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) named Marquis Childs undertook a journey to Sweden to examine the bold new experiment being pursued there in offering a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Not unlike the nineteenth century French diplomat whose “Democracy in America” captured the spirit of the nascent U.S., Childs’s account of the emergent Nordic “social model” produced a classic entitled “Sweden: The Middle Way” (1936). Against the background of a looming struggle between fascism and democracy, capitalism and communism, this short book chronicled the “practical” ways in which effective social democratic governance could overcome ideological confrontation and deliver results. The subtitle of the book would become a cliché of centrist politics.

There is no overt ideological battle in the 21st century. Yet, in the West, citizens increasingly turn to populist forces to seek an easy respite to the frustration caused by the failures of democracy. Other models, such as China’s “political capitalism,” rest on technocratic command-and-control methods, whose global appeal is growing mostly due to their perceived ability to “deliver the goods.” 

No matter where and how they are practiced, these alternatives seem to offer only partial and unsatisfactory answers to increasingly complex questions of governance. The evidence from COVID-19 and the contrasting Nordic responses to it suggests rigid rule-making imparted from above or populist over-simplifications brewed from below can only represent the extremes of a more sophisticated palette of governing processes.

The Nordic “middle way” of the 21st century is not a place in between opposing worldviews, nor is it about finding a common ground between different ideological inclinations. It is about practicing flexible governance formats, a pragmatic operation of political bricolage, where actors inspired by somewhat conflicting priorities come together.

“Citizens accept order and control in ways and to extents uneasily akin to subservience.”

Then as now, the glue is in the culture of consensus, a mindset of compromise and an appreciation for orderliness. I come from Italy, where compromise is a shorthand for weakness, a synonym for flip-flopping or selling out. If you compromise, it’s because you’ve lost a little bit of dignity.

In the Nordic region, by contrast, the search for compromise is seen as overwhelmingly positive. “Maybe we won’t meet in the middle,” Danish historian Bo Lidegaard once told me. “Maybe it is 30% you and 70% me” — but the result is acceptable for both. The Swedish language even has a word for this, “lagom,”which encapsulates their philosophy of a life that refuses excesses, that searches for the right measure between what is too much and what is too little. Nordics tend to be realistic about their expectations and find balance in moderation.

There is, however, a dark side to this tale of consensus and compromise, perhaps best epitomized by the blockbuster Nordic genre of crime novels known as Nordic noir, made most famous outside the region by novels like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. The tensions within Nordic noir novels emerge from the contrast between the apparently bland, conformist social surfaces of the Nordic societies in which they are set and the horrific accounts of murder, misogyny or racism they depict as lurking beneath those surfaces.

Some have wondered why a region characterized by such supposed social harmony would produce such dark fictional tales. But this is exactly the point: One reason why Nordic noir fiction is so popular is because of how it reveals contradictions, how the seemingly idyllic and even boring context masks a hidden reality of heinous crimes and moral depravity. In societies that rightly boast of their high standards of gender equality, it’s not a coincidence that Larsson’s novel was originally entitled, in Swedish, “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor” — “Men Who Hate Women.”

“Swedes call it ‘conflictophobia;’ after a trip to Sweden in the 1960s, Susan Sontag defined it as being ‘uncompetitive without being genuinely cooperative.’”

Nordic governance in the face of COVID-19 embodies this Nordic noir paradox: Sweden is generally considered among the best-governed countries in the world, and yet it intentionally imposed on its people a trade-off that few other nations would have willingly accepted. In the 1970s, British journalist Roland Huntford went as far as decrying the Nordics as “the new totalitarians.” Citizens accept order and control in ways and to extents uneasily akin to subservience. Comparing Sweden to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Huntford painted a picture of a distorted and deranged political machine in which people willingly surrender personal freedom to an omnipresent Leviathan and entrust it to determine the fate of each individual.

For some observers, this surrender is the ultimate manifestation of collective conflict avoidance. Swedes call it conflictophobia; after a trip to Sweden in the 1960s, cultural critic Susan Sontag defined it as being “uncompetitive without being genuinely cooperative.” She thought that the premise to achieve such compromise is not a desire to resolve disagreements but to sweep them under the rug. Worse still, conflicts are preempted by a preordained and unquestionable value set. In other words, it is not civility that is at the heart of Nordic good governance, but rather conformism, which defines the social preconditions necessary to be accepted in society.

There is consensus, yes, but it is “engineered consensus.” Choices are in fact limited, and policies are imbued with a messianic purpose, leading sometimes to abominable excesses. The state knows what’s best, rarely makes mistakes and, as the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal once put it, “protects people against themselves.” And even when the state does make mistakes, the people do not question its essential competence and benevolence.

“Even when the state does make mistakes, the people do not question its essential competence and benevolence.”

When seen in this light, the seemingly libertarian Swedish strategy of managing COVID-19 assumes very different connotations. It is less about voluntarism, responsibility and no lockdowns than about the government, its bureaucracy and its chief epidemiologist deciding how to protect people from themselves. At the same time, the social trust and organizational capacity underpinning Nordic societies ensures that policies and decisions are the result of painstaking consensus. It is a method and a practice of governance that, almost irrespective of the results that it produces, settles for a middle way.

The Limits To Technocracy

Whether or not COVID-19 constitutes an existential threat to liberal democracy, it has offered a unique stress-test of the suitability of our institutions to adapt and withstand shocks. If there is one overarching lesson to draw from the Nordic COVID-19 tale, it is that operational capacity and social trust are crucial assets when addressing the complex challenges of our time.

The Nordics remind us that, while the “deep state” may be reviled in some places for its elitist pursuit of control without popular legitimacy, experts and civil servants with the confidence of the people are essential to ensure continuity to policymaking and to carry out bipartisan policies in a spirit of transparency and accountability. At the same time, in a pandemic, the end results of high-trust and well-governed countries are so divergent and controversial that it is warranted to speculate about the limits of technocracy in delivering effective policy outcomes.

Make no mistake: there is no moral equivalence between technocratic governance and its populist alternative. COVID-19 has confirmed that populists are causing havoc by pandering to our prejudices, mystifying facts and placing established certainties in a state of doubt. But in their attempt to cater to our pursuit of liberty and need for security, even some highly revered governments such as the Nordics have overreached and pushed their policy responses to idiosyncratic excesses.

“This ability to focus on what there is, rather than what there is not, may just be the primary reason why the Nordics top global rankings of the world’s happiest nations.”

When seen in this light, the defining trait of the Nordic mindset is not technocratic government or social trust; it is pragmatism, the spirit of the glass half-full. I have always suspected that this ability to find the middle way and focus on what there is, rather than what there is not, may just be the primary reason why the Nordics top global rankings of the world’s happiest nations.

The French poet Paul Valéry once wrote: “We hope vaguely, we dread precisely; our fears are infinitely more precise than our hopes.” The Nordic governments and its peoples seem to have found a way to hope precisely. There is something there for us all to learn.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this essay suggested that Taiwan responded to COVID-19 with a lockdown, but it did not.