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The great Swedish COVID-19 experiment is failing. What does that mean for the rest of us?

Sweden’s capitulation feels especially disheartening, as if no matter what humans do, they can’t win this war. But we still can

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven gives a news conference on new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, in Stockholm, Sweden, Wednesday Nov. 11, 2020. The Swedish government proposes to stop the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. from Nov. 20 until the end of February.
Henrik Montgomery, TT via Associated Press

Stefan Lofven, the Swedish prime minister, looked shaken as he addressed his nation Monday, announcing some of the kinds of restrictions Sweden had specifically avoided earlier in this pandemic year. Gatherings will be limited to eight people or less. Bars can’t serve alcohol after 10 p.m.

Calling it a “new normal” and warning that things will get worse, Lofven said, “It is a clear and sharp signal to every person in our country as to what applies in the future. Don’t go to the gym, don’t go to the library, don’t have dinner out, don’t have parties — cancel!”

A reporter took to the streets to see how people felt about this. One elderly woman said she thought the restrictions were needed, but “maybe they should have come a little sooner.” She added a sentiment that seems to cross all borders. “I hope that younger people will have a little more regard. I understand it’s a little boring to not have parties, but follow the rules for everyone’s sake.”

But Niclas Rolander, a Stockholm-based reporter for Bloomberg, said Swedes are growing weary. The first time around, people were willing to comply with suggestions. “This time around, people appear to be a lot less willing to change their behavior voluntarily,” he said in a video published by Bloomberg.

That sounds familiar to those of us in the United States, where governors are either reimposing restrictions or, as in Utah, imposing mask mandates for the first time. We feel like we’ve done this all before in an effort to flatten a curve that only gets higher. We can’t even count on college football games to assuage our mental fatigue, as games remain uncertain until kickoff.

More importantly, for many people, livelihoods are on the line. Rents and mortgage payments are due. Congress and a president who is still waging a war on elections seem unwilling to provide any more help.

And Thanksgiving’s rapid approach is forcing families to weigh cherished traditions against the advice of experts.

Amid all this, Sweden’s capitulation feels especially disheartening, as if no matter what humans do, they can’t win this war.

But that hasn’t been true in any previous endeavor, and it isn’t now, either.

Several decades ago, in pursuit of a story, I rode in a police cruiser through a crowded Fremont Street in Las Vegas with an officer who explained to me how law enforcement depends on compliance with the law by vast majorities of people. If all these people decided to disobey the law, he said, pointing all around us, we would be helpless.

But through the collective efforts of a focused majority, great things can happen.

In Russia last summer, dozens of people formed a human chain, linking arms to rescue a drowning woman. A Youtube video shows her being pulled to safety. Similar examples of group rescues have been filmed in China, New Zealand and elsewhere.

But here, in this dark pre-dawn of 2020’s defining experience, we struggle to link reluctant hands as we stare at the distant lights of two vaccines on the verge of FDA approval, offering tantalizing effective rates of about 95%.

Perhaps this is how it ends — through a two-shot regimen. Or will people refuse to take these, too?

We are plagued by what we don’t know. Children were supposed to be safe. Now, authorities say 1 million of them have been infected in the United States and, in Utah, doctors are reporting a noticeable uptick in infants and children being diagnosed after Halloween, and some are becoming extremely ill. The CDC says cloth masks not only protect against transmission but protect the wearer from infection, as well. But a new Danish study in the Annals of Internal Medicine disputes that.

And, in Sweden, health officials told the Financial Times this week they don’t understand why they are facing such a new surge after having gone through a similar one earlier.

Uncertainty, fear and the unknown — those are indeed reasons to feel fatigued and afraid. So is knowing a vaccine is so near, yet probably not available until spring.

Until then, we have little choice but to rely on the strength of linked hands, holding out a few months longer, wearing masks and limiting contact to protect as many from getting sick as possible — in Sweden and everywhere else.