‘You have to understand how a society works’: Swedish epidemiologist defends light-touch pandemic response

Newspaper claims Anders Tegnell’s controversial approach yielded better outcome than previously thought

Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has described criticism of his Covid-19 approach as “exaggerated”, after a Swedish newspaper presented statistics it says vindicates his light-touch strategy.

While the rest of Europe responded to the pandemic with lockdowns, school closures, face masks and widespread testing, Mr Tegnell (67) pushed a strategy of few restrictions in Sweden.

Initially highly popular at home, the Tegnell approach increasingly divided public opinion both there and across Europe, with critics pointing out that Sweden had more Covid-19 deaths than its Nordic neighbours combined.

A final state report logged 13,000 Covid deaths in Sweden, more than five times the 2,500 deaths in neighbouring Norway, with half the population.


In recent months Mr Tegnell has disappeared from public view. A planned job at the World Health Organisation fell through and he remains a controversial figure in expert circles.

Now the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet claims Sweden fared better in the pandemic than previously claimed, based on Sweden’s 2020-2022 excess mortality data, which shows how many more people than expected die during a period.

Usually about 90,000 Swedes die annually but in 2020 some 98,000 deaths were registered. Official numbers from Sweden’s statistics office show deaths dropped to 92,000 in 2021 and just under 95,000 in 2022.

“Figures for excess mortality in Europe during the first three years of the pandemic show that Sweden ranks lowest in the entire EU, and in the Nordics, during this period,” wrote Svenska Dagbladet.

With these numbers the newspaper approached Mr Tegnell, asking if his light-touch pandemic approach was right after all.

After recalling the tragedy of lives lost, and the limitations of excess mortality data, Mr Tegnell added: “In any case, when it comes to this measure, Sweden has obviously done quite well.”

“I don’t think it would have made a big difference to the spread of infection if, for example, we had been quicker in limiting the number of spectators at larger events,” he said.

Asked whether fewer people would have died in spring 2020 if his organisation had intervened more quickly and decisively, he said it was “an impossible question to answer”.

“I don’t even think with the data we have today we can answer that, because we still know very little about the effects the measures had,” he said.

Sweden’s approach had benefits not immediately visible, he said, from lower levels of domestic violence, continued medical care for cancer patients and others and none of the child development issues seen in countries that chose lockdowns and school closures.

Two official studies last year were scathing of Sweden’s “late and not very powerful measures that failed to significantly limit the spread of infection”.

“Between 10,000 and 12,000 lives were lost in Sweden due to the Swedish government’s inaction,” argued one critical analysis, Sweden’s Pandemic Experiment.

After three intense years, at times living with police protection, Mr Tegnell said he was satisfied “that we did a good job”.

“You can’t just have a narrow virus perspective,” he said. “You have to understand how a society works.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin