Given the similarity of the Nordic societies, it is interesting to note how differently some of them have reacted to the current COVID-19 crisis, writes Johan Strang, Associate Professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies, the University of Helsinki.
In an article at nordics.info Johan Strang discusses the differences between Denmark’s, Finland’s, Norway’s and Sweden’s COVID-19 strategies and efforts when it comes to for example testing and lockdowns. Iceland is not included.
The diverse reactions have disclosed the different ways each country is run, particularly with respect to the relationship between government and administrative authorities, as well as to the concerns over the fragility of the democratic system as a whole, writes Strang. These differences are often rooted in historical traditions and experiences. In the article Strang considers some of the reasons for these differences.
Differing administrative traditions in the east and west of Norden
One of the most fundamental reasons for the different reactions to the COVID-19 crisis in the Nordic countries is the differing administrative traditions in the east and west of Norden, states Strang. Finland and Sweden have comparatively small ministries and autonomous administrative authorities, and the politicians are more directly in charge of the administration in Norway and Denmark. Thus, it was easier in Denmark and Norway to react quickly with political decisions, and even to overrule authorities and their expertise when it was considered politically necessary, writes Strang.
“Whereas Finland and Sweden have comparatively small ministries and autonomous administrative authorities, the politicians are more directly in charge of the administration in Norway and Denmark.”
In both Norway and Denmark, the prime minister is a clear front figure. In Finland, the Prime Minister is also a front figure, but constantly emphasizes that she follows the recommendations of THL (Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitos, or the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare).
Why Finland has acted differently than Sweden, despite the same management tradition, may have to do with Finnish historical experiences, not least from the Second World War, continues Strang. “The lesson from the war was that if everyone follows the orders of the state, then everything will be all right, but there is also an expectation that the government will be prepared to act quickly and vigorously,” he writes.
Finland is also better equipped than the other Nordic countries with respect to emergency stocks etc. In Norway and Denmark, the war experience was more to do with the responsibility of the individual being important, while Sweden can perhaps be said to lack a comparable crisis experience, writes Strang.
Self-confidence, a central role of the economy and doing what you are told
In the article Strang also discusses reasons to why Sweden’s strategy differs so much from the other countries.
The first reason he mentions is an unquestioning self-confidence. “Identifying and explaining where this Swedish self-confidence comes from is one of the most difficult and exciting questions for philosophers and cultural historians interested in the Nordic countries. My own theory is that it is a question of temporality. Sometimes during the 20th century, the heyday of the Swedish model, an idea emerged that Sweden was one of the most modern countries in the world, and thus ‘ahead’ of other countries. So, if you, like Sweden, are at the forefront of human development, there is no point in comparing yourself with other less advanced societies. Instead, there is a willingness and a custom for solving every question independently,” writes Strang.
The other reason for Sweden’s different strategy is the central role of the economy, believes Strang. “If I remember Henrik Stenius, the founder of the Centre for Nordic Studies at Helsinki University correctly, the central expertise in crisis situations is economists in Sweden, historians and philosophers in Finland, lawyers and historians in Norway, and political scientists in Denmark.”
Strang writes that there is a strong tradition in Sweden of thinking that a functioning economy is a prerequisite for people’s well-being and health.
“If I remember Henrik Stenius, the founder of the Centre for Nordic Studies at Helsinki University correctly, the central expertise in crisis situations is economists in Sweden, historians and philosophers in Finland, lawyers and historians in Norway, and political scientists in Denmark.”
The third and final reason Strang mentions is that Swedes do what they are told. “In the other Nordic countries – perhaps especially in Denmark – Sweden has a reputation for being a paternalistic, prohibitive society, which appears not to be in keeping with the liberal attitude Sweden has had during the corona crisis. How does this add up? If you look more closely, it is arguably not so much prohibitions per se that the Danes make fun of, but how obediently the Swedes follow different recommendations. If Danish anecdotes are to be believed, when the Swedish public health authority (Folkhälsomyndigheten) recommends eating five slices of bread per day, then the Swedes eat five slices of bread per day. The stereotype is more that the Swedes naively trust that the state knows what is best for them. Incidentally, this is precisely the same logic that pervades Sweden’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis; the Swedish authorities trust that the Swedes in general will follow the recommendations of the state epidemiologist to wash their hands and keep away from each other. There is no need to legally enforce social distancing measures. That said, in a broader comparative perspective, trust in authorities is high throughout the Nordic region (including Denmark), so there are certainly limitations to this explanation of Swedish exceptionality,” writes Strang.
Individual rights and other constitutional aspects of the measures against the pandemic have been much more central to the debate in Finland and especially Norway than in Denmark and Sweden, writes Strang. “This might be because Finland and Norway are younger nations and more legalized democracies than Denmark and Sweden. For historical reasons, the constitution has a special role in both Finland and Norway. In Finland, the old Swedish laws were of special importance during the Russian period (1809-1917) and there has been repeated democratic crises during the 20th century which have emphasized the need for constitutional protection of democracy. In Norway, the Eidsvoll constitution of 1814 holds a special place in the national narrative, and the leading politicians during the 19th century were often lawyers. Norway still has the most lawyers per capita among the Nordics. Denmark and Sweden would rather stress the primacy of politics over law.”
While Denmark and Sweden might be characterized by what can be termed a democratic self-confidence (or alternatively naivety), Norway and Finland are more concerned with the fragility of democracy at times of crises, suggests Strang.
Support and critical debate
A final observation that Johan Strang makes is how strong the support is for a particular country’s approach as the correct one. Support for the Nordic governments is also stable and increasing across the region, and newspapers tend to inflate news that reinforce the feeling that “our” own country is on the right track.
“But the longer the crisis lasts, the more room there seems to be for critical debate. References to other Nordic countries form a central part of these emerging debates, and in this sense, it is interesting to note that the crisis has revived the intra-Nordic comparison as a national political praxis across the region. In times of crisis, the Nordic countries might not act similarly, but they remain eager to learn from each other in order to be better prepared the next time,” concludes Strang.
“In times of crisis, the Nordic countries might not act similarly, but they remain eager to learn from each other in order to be better prepared the next time.”