Sweden’s Top Banker Weighs In on Controversial Covid Strategy
The chief executive officer of Sweden’s biggest bank has a lot of good things to say about her country’s strategy for tackling the coronavirus pandemic, at least when it comes to its effect on businesses.
Carina Akerstrom, CEO of Svenska Handelsbanken AB, says the “way the Swedish government has handled this issue about the pandemic, I think it’s been good.”
“We have been more open,” she said after releasing third-quarter results. “I think that we could see the wheels start moving forward.” Sweden’s strategy has “been good, if you just talk about business.”
Sweden never imposed a lockdown. It’s a decision that may have helped its economy, but at a significant human cost. Gyms, schools, restaurants and shops have stayed open and face masks are hardly used across most of the country. The strategy has been hugely controversial, and a commission has been appointed by the government to investigate whether Sweden chose the right path.
But after the third quarter, it’s clear that Swedish businesses and the banks that lend them money are in better shape than feared back in March.
Swedish gross domestic product is estimated to shrink only about half as much this year as the economy of the euro zone, according to most forecasters. TheRiksbank’s latest estimate shows a contraction of 3.6% in 2020, followed by growth of 3.7% in 2021.
At the same time, Sweden’sCovid death rate of 58 per 100,000 is much higher than that of its Nordic neighbors. What’s more, there’s so far little sign the country is anywhere near achieving herd immunity.
On Thursday, Swedish health authorities issued a new set ofrecommendations (not restrictions) urging people in a number of districts including the capital to avoid shops, museums and restaurants after a record spike in new Covid cases. In some areas outside the capital, Swedes are being told to avoid public transport.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, says the pandemic is likely to last for years meaning it’s too early to judge which model will prove best in the long run. Importantly, Sweden’s health-care system still looks up to the task ahead, with Covid patients occupying 57 of its 525intensive-care beds, as of Friday. The Armed Forces, including mobile field hospitals, will be called in if needed.
Jens Henriksson, the CEO of Swedbank AB, says there are “things that we’ve done better than others” in Sweden, and “there are things we’ve done worse.” But he thinks one decision stands out.
“Maybe the most important thing we’ve done in Sweden was not to close down the schools,” Henriksson said. That freed parents to focus on their jobs, whether they did so from home or at their workplace.
Akerstrom says a key takeaway from the crisis in Sweden is how smoothly life continued, even with most people working from home.
“To be honest, in the beginning I think that we all wondered how this would end. But looking back, I think it’s been really good. And the efficiency is still high,” she said.
There are “a lot of people working from home,” Akerstrom said. “I think that’s a trend that maybe will increase.”
— With assistance by Christian Miller, and Love Liman
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