The aims of this article are, first, to describe the Swedish authorities’ strategy for dealing with the sudden onset of novel coronavirus in early 2020 and, second, to explain why that strategy differed markedly from those in nearly all other European countries. From an early stage, the Swedish government delegated decision making to the Public Health Agency, and its goal was to mitigate the effects of the virus rather than to suppress its spread. Society was never closed down in the same way as elsewhere. Using data from media reports and other publications, we argue that the agency was insulated from pressure to change course, even as the number of deaths associated with covid-19 rose far above those in Sweden’s Nordic neighbours, by four conditions: (1) the structure of national public administration; (2) an outburst of nationalism in parts of the media; (3) the uneven impact of the virus; and (4) a political leadership that was willing to delegate responsibility for policy almost entirely. We conclude by briefly comparing the coronavirus strategy to previous episodes of Swedish policy exceptionalism. This emerging pattern, we suggest, raises normative questions about the functioning of Swedish democracy.
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