The slipping mask of Swedish capitalism

As of the end of April, the amount of COVID-19 deaths in Sweden per 1,000 inhabitants is three times that of Denmark, three times that of Germany and four times that of Norway. The government is peddling the nationalist idea that Sweden is somehow different and better than the rest of the world. But the pandemic has revealed the true colours of Swedish class society.

On 4 February, the director of Public Health, Johan Carlson said “the coronavirus will not spread in Swedish society under the current circumstances”. The authorities have time and time again highlighted that we have “one of the best healthcare systems in the world”, pushing the idea that we will somehow be safe – these kinds of things just don’t happen to Sweden.

The truth is that cuts and privatisations since the 1990s have meant a rapid deterioration of healthcare. The number of hospital beds has more than halved since the 1990s, and is now the lowest per 1,000 inhabitants of all the OECD countries. When the latest survey was done in 2012, Sweden had the second lowest number of intensive care beds in the EU, half as many as Italy.

Even though they usually don’t admit it publicly, it is clear the Swedish government has taken a “herd immunity” approach to combating the virus. State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell described Sweden’s strategy in an interview on 8 April: “any serious epidemiologist knows that only herd immunity will eventually slow down the spread of the virus. Nothing else will slow it down in the long term... and we are a long way off from a vaccine.”

As we know, the UK abandoned this approach when research from Imperial College London showed that this would risk killing 250,000 people. Letting the population expose itself to the virus without taking into account the shortages of intensive care beds, ill-equipped hospitals, overworked medical staff, medically unprepared elderly homes and depleted healthcare facilities due to decades of cuts and privatisations exposes the real priorities of the Swedish government.

As capitalism is entering into a severe crisis on a world scale, the Swedish government maintains a singular focus on defending private capitalist profits. The extra 2.1 billion euros alloted to the welfare system is dwarfed by the decrease in tax revenue because of the crisis. And big business has been promised more than 20 times as much: 58 billion euros in subsidies.

A careless response

At the start of the pandemic, the WHO was pushing for “aggressive testing”, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. Sweden did not follow these recommendations. Contact tracing was abandoned on 12 March, with Tegnell describing the practice as “now meaningless”. Though never openly admitted by the authorities, there was a major shortage of test kits, which meant that testing was severely restricted. Scandalously, they were not even testing healthcare workers exposed to Covid-19 positive patients without protective equipment. There was no quarantine of people from households with confirmed cases, who were asked to show up to work as usual (as long as they didn’t show any symptoms). This rule applied also to people in healthcare.

The Swedish bourgeoisie is concerned that more decisive measures would hurt their profits. This was more-or-less confirmed by the head of the unit for analysis of the Public Health Agency of Sweden, Lisa Brouwers:

”We can't shut down a society, travel, transport and social relations for several years. It's not possible. I don't think it's even something worth striving for. The economy will collapse long before that.”

Over 2,000 Swedish scientists and researchers signed a petition on 25 March urging the government to “immediately take measures to follow the recommendations of the WHO to their full extent, including interventions to reduce mobility and contact in the population and... increase our capacity to test for Covid-19 infections”. And again, on 14 April, 22 researchers and scientists wrote in the bourgeois daily Dagens Nyheter:

“As a result [of public health authorities ignoring early signs of spread], very little happened during the following month. There was no major expansion of the testing possibilities. No great effort was made to build up the stocks of protective equipment. And it has continued along the same lines. On at least four occasions, it has been claimed by the Public Health Authority that the spread of infection has leveled out or will decline. It has not. All symptom-free returners from the Italian Alps were advised to live as usual – even though they knew that northern Italy was hit hard. They still refuse to accept that the spread of infection from asymptomatic carriers in a significant way has contributed to mortality among the elderly. And they are reluctant to change their recommendations even now that Sweden's curves are starting to differ radically from neighboring countries.”

“Best healthcare in the world”

Hospital tableSweden has cut and deregulated its healthcare system rapidly since the 1980s. Now workers face the consequences / Image: public domain

A 2012 report from the US conservative think-tank The Heritage, stated that “no country has privatised and deregulated public services as fast as Sweden. Sweden has risen up the ranking faster than any developed economy since 1996”. This process started in the 1980s and accelerated during the economic crisis of the early 1990s. The right-wing government in 2006–2014 carried out severe attacks, which the current ostensibly Social Democratic government has done little to reverse.

And privatisations and cuts continue even now. A hospital in Stockholm was sold for 52.6 million euros in March to a company owned by Wallenberg, the richest family in Sweden. True to form, the former head of healthcare in Stockholm is a board member in that company. A hospital in Helsingborg is carrying out major cuts worth 9.2 million euros. All regions and city councils were in fact already planning major cuts this year. Most of it has now been postponed – to be carried out once the pandemic subsides.

At the beginning of the 1990s, there were 50 field hospitals with 10,000 hospital beds, 900 intensive care beds and 2,100 intensive care beds in store. But during the 1990s, the civil defence was cut as the military was repurposed for participation in the latest imperialist adventure. Helicopters, ambulances, shelters, hospitals, fire trucks, power generators and food stores were unceremoniously thrown away, sold or destroyed – including 630 ventilators. In the early 2000s, 7.4 million facemasks were burned, out of which 30 percent were fully functional and 70 percent only needed new filters.

According to the National Board of Health and Welfare, Sweden had 4,300 intensive care beds in 1993 but in 2018 the number had dropped to 574. The number of emergency centres dropped during the same period from 115 to 71.

Last year, 500 surgeries had to be cancelled because the private company Apotektjänst messed up deliveries of medical supplies. Providing medicines was formerly the responsibility of the state pharmacy monopoly, but it was deregulated in 2009 and the eight central stores disbanded. Greedy capitalist companies like Procurator are now engaging in price gouging with price hikes of up to 900 percent on personal protective equipment.

Cracks beginning to show

Now, three out of four elderly homes in Stockholm and one out of three in Gothenburg have confirmed COVID-19 cases, though the real figure is probably higher. The number of precarious jobs in elderly care homes is one of the main reasons behind the swift spread of the virus to old people. One out of four workers in public sector elderly care homes are on temporary contracts and one out of five have zero hour contracts. In Stockholm 800 nurses and assistant nurses have now worked 48 hour-weeks for four weeks.

hospice caring elderly old Image WPThree out of four elderly homes in Stockholm and one out of three in Gothenburg have confirmed COVID-19 cases, and there is a major shortage of PPE for healthcare workers / Image: WP

The virus clearly affects working-class people much harder than the rich. Many workers don't have the possibility of staying at home for fear of losing their jobs, or simply cannot afford to lose any income. They obviously also live in more-crowded conditions than the rich in their mansions.

In Gothenburg, workers at an elderly care home made their own face masks out of diapers. One healthcare worker, Jessica, who works at an elderly care home in Stockholm told the newspaper Expressen on 8 April that their boss had told them that they used gloves too often and should use their bare hands when making beds or handling the elderly. Even infected elderly were to be handled this way, because according to the boss, “it is less dangerous than going to the supermarket”.

Due to lack of personal protective equipment, the authorities claimed on 27 March that there was no need to use a face mask and that sleeveless gowns were fine – as long as the workers used disinfectant gel. This led to outrage among healthcare workers, who started a Facebook group called “#Vägrasänkahygienkraven covid-19” (#refuselowerhygienestandards) that grew to more than 60,000 members within a week. The group was brimming over with angry comments like: “These politicians will walk over corpses if that is what is needed to stay in power.” An ambulance driver had the following to say:

“Thank you SKR [Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions] for playing with our lives by lowering the safety standards against Covid-19, we who are supposed to save your face after years of cuts with abysmal wages. You are endangering the lives of my children and parents, without consultation and against the directives from the Public Health Agency. I won't allow it! Now we are supposed to fight Covid-19 in surgical masks that work as well as a coffee filter in war.”

Recently, around 50 employees of the hospital in Linköping were tested and it turned out that half of them were infected – many without symptoms. Yet Johanna Sandwall, responsible for emergency response at the National board of health and welfare, said that healthcare workers run “zero risk of getting infected” if they follow the recommendations, have the right education and the right skills to use the equipment. In other words, it’s your own fault if you get infected.

After initially staying silent, the pressure from below has now forced the trade union Kommunal, one of the biggest trade unions that organises most public sector workers, to speak out more clearly. On 17 April, Kommunal demanded that all their members should have access to proper protective gear, including face masks, visor, gloves and gowns with long sleeves. If this was not provided Kommunal said they would enforce a safety representative stoppage in every work place that refused to meet those demands. Unfortunately, they have yet to prove this militancy in any concrete action. The safety representative stoppages so far, in two major hospitals and six elderly care homes, have all been carried out from below.

Crisis of the economy

Sweden is facing a far-steeper recession than in 2008–2009. Over 100,000 people have lost their jobs since the beginning of March, the majority in the service sector (hotels, restaurants and bars), where many workers have precarious contracts. Many companies, including giants like Volvo and Scania, have furloughed the majority of their workers because they did not receive necessary component parts from other countries, with their wages now being paid for by the state. Some economists estimate that the Swedish GDP may contract as much as 10 percent and that unemployment may reach 13.5 percent in just the first year of the crisis.

The government has introduced some minor concessions for workers, such as pay on their first sick day, but it doesn’t come close to making up for the loss in wages. They have lowered the requirements to obtain unemployment benefits, but most young workers on temporary zero-hour contracts still don't meet the requirements and cannot get it.

Stefan Lofven Image PoRThe supposedly Social Democratic government have proceeded with cuts that have undermined the health service / Image: PoR

Whenever in government since 1980, the Social Democrats carried out cuts, privatisations and deregulations. The trade union leaders have not mobilised seriously against this, with the amount of strikes actually declining as the situation of the workers has deteriorated – especially in the public sector and in precarious jobs. Indeed, the rise of the racist right-wing Sweden Democrats – now boasting around 20 percent in the polls – are a clear sign that many workers are looking for an alternative. As we have explained many times, this takes place in a confused way in a turn to the Sweden Democrats, only due to the lack of a serious working-class alternative from the left. But this can’t last forever.

Besides the government giving 58 billion euros to the companies, the central bank has promised the banks liquidity support worth up to 129 billion euros. Workers lose their jobs, face the risk of falling ill and not getting treatment – all while the state is doing its best to help bosses line their pockets.

The government and the capitalists count on getting away with all this by relying on the leaders of the labour movement to hold back the class struggle. But they shouldn't be so confident of this plan. The recklessness and cynicism of the government will be held against them as the death toll mounts and unemployment increases. Many workers hope that this is a temporary period and that things will go back to normal after the pandemic. But a new wave of cuts will be unleashed to balance the budget of the state, regions and city councils, to pay for the handouts to the capitalists. This sets the stage for massive class struggle, that the Labour leaders won't easily be able to hold back.

Jacob Wallenberg, head of the richest capitalist family in Sweden, said in an interview with the Financial Times entitled “Coronavirus ‘medicine’ could trigger social breakdown”, that he is “dead scared of the consequences for society”. He predicted that, if the crisis is prolonged, it could mean an unemployment rate of 20–30 percent and a contraction of the economy by the same amount. In such a scenario, he said that: “There will be no recovery. There will be social unrest. There will be violence. There will be socio-economic consequences: dramatic unemployment.” In other words, he is dead scared of the class struggle. We would add that the scenario he depicts has clear revolutionary implications.

The passivity of the labour movement

The trade unions have supported the measures taken by the government. The chair of the Trade union confederation LO, Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson even said that “nothing is missing” from the miniscule temporary measures introduced.

All the initiatives to protect workers have come from below. Local trade unions have pushed for safety measures in public transport, to stop checking tickets on trains, closing the front doors on buses and demands to not decrease train fares, as this risks spreading the virus faster with overcrowded trains and buses.

During the last few years a number of initiatives from welfare workers were organised, which they have appropriately called “revolts” – from the teachers, to nurses, elder care workers, pre-school teachers and many more all over the country organising demonstrations and other protests. But this is nothing compared to what we will see after the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Left Party has supported the billions of euros donated to the banks and the big businesses without criticism. They have demanded more money for welfare, but far from what is needed to even cover the tax income that is now lost through growing unemployment. The leadership has clearly been affected by the pressure towards national unity, where the capitalists, the right-wing parties, even the Sweden Democrats, and the trade unions all support the government through this crisis.

For years, the Left Party has gradually adapted itself to the Social Democrats, and downplayed their earlier, more radical demands like a SIX-hour working day and 200,000 new jobs in the public sector. The leadership has even proposed for the (now postponed) party congress to scrap the section in the party programme talking about the necessity of abolishing capitalism.

In a recent live-stream, party leader Jonas Sjöstedt had this advice to offer:

“Buy take-away to support small business, listen to the authorities, postpone seeing your grandmother, take care of each other, wash your hands, keep your distance, think of the elderly, reach out to old friends, make your home look nice, sow seeds in pots so that you can harvest cucumbers and tomatoes in the summer when the crisis is over.”

With this kind of “lead” from the top, the struggle against the crisis will have to be carried out from below: by radical trade union members, Left Party members and Social Democrats – and the until-now-passive layers of the working class, who will be forced onto the scene.

For a workers’ offensive

In 1980, Sweden was one of the most equal countries in the world. Since then there has been a massive redistribution of wealth from workers to capitalists. Sweden is the OECD country where inequality has risen fastest over the past decades. The capitalists should not be allowed to use this crisis to further rob the working class to safeguard their own profits. We need a working-class offensive to meet the onslaught by the bosses.

Revolution, the Swedish section of the IMT, call on all those who want to fight back, who want to solve the crisis in healthcare, save lives from the horrors of COVID-19, and make the bosses pay for the economic crisis to fight for the following demands:

  • Stop all cuts, layoffs and privatisations.
  • A mass campaign to hire health workers. Give workers an incentive to come back to healthcare through extensive permanent wage increases. Expropriate necessary facilities to provide hospital beds.
  • Nationalise big pharma, businesses that provide protective equipment, and all private healthcare, to be incorporated in a national plan for healthcare.
  • Introduce fast-tracked education with guaranteed employment for everyone who wants to contribute to health care. Cancel the layoffs of administrative personnel, janitors, cleaners, etc. in order that healthcare workers can focus on patients.
  • Nationalise industries to produce protective equipment. Organise workplace committées in industries, healthcare and at universities to coordinate and decide what needs to be produced and how to do it.
  • Organise free food distribution to all those who cannot leave their homes or who cannot afford to buy food. Price controls to put a stop to inflation of food supplies, medicines, medical equipment etc.
  • Prohibit layoffs and wage decreases because of the crisis. All furloughs should be paid by big businesses – not the state. Companies that claim they can't afford this should open their books for investigation by elected worker comittées. If they really cannot afford this, they should be nationalised to safeguard jobs. All big businesses that face bankruptcy should be nationalised, not closed.
  • Shut down all non-essential production to counter the spread of the virus and give the workers full wages to be paid by the company, not the state. Let the workers and trade unions decide what production is essential and what is not. In workplaces that have to remain open, workers and trade unions must take control over production, and make decisions over working hours, hiring of new workers and any measures that they deem necessary to protect workers’ health.
  • If bosses refuse to shut down non-essential production, the trade unions should organise strikes to force a shutdown.
  • Prohibit evictions and introduce a rent-freeze for those who have lost their income and cancel parts of mortgages for workers who can’t pay their debts. Expropriate all empty buildings to house the homeless. Nationalise all real estate companies that refuse.
  • Make it possible for all workers to get unemployment benefits and stop the insane demands now placed on sick people to get their benefits. No one who is ill should have their insurance taken away.
  • No deals between the trade union leaders and the bosses behind the backs of the membership. Fight to reestablish working-class democracy in the trade union movement. All deals must be voted on by the members – no deals to be signed by the leaders without being approved by the members!
  • This programme should not be financed through loans, which will only be paid for by workers through cuts and inflation at a later stage. Nationalise the banks to pay for necessary investments and measures. By nationalising the banks the small businesses can be offered state support to safeguard jobs. All nationalisations of banks and big businesses to be carried out without compensation to previous owners.

These demands may seem “extreme” to many Swedish workers who still don’t understand just how deep this crisis will be and how hard it will affect them. But in reality, what is extreme is to allow the continued existence of this system. Capitalism today stands exposed as a system where the private profits of the few are literally more important than our lives.

If we want to avoid deaths, alleviate the burden of healthcare workers drowning in the burden unloaded upon them and not let the capitalists with the help of the state take away all those reforms that Swedish workers fought hard for, then these extraordinary measures must be taken. The crisis should be paid for by the capitalists that have been lining their pockets, and raking in record profits for years on end. We are absolutely unapologetic about our continued support for socialism – the only rational alternative – and the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class and their rotten system.

The need for a socialist planned economy

All over the country, initiatives have been taken by ordinary workers and youth to help those in need. People have offered to help their neighbours who cannot leave their homes to pick up food and medicine for them. People are buying food for hospital workers, as they often don't have time to get food themselves. The chemical department at Stockholm university has produced disinfectant to healthcare and the workers making costumes at the City Theatre in Stockholm are sewing protective gowns.

This should be compared to the greed of the bosses now trying to avoid safety measures, or the cynicism of the government, which thinks that thousands dying is a price worth paying to keep “the economy” running (that is, to protect capitalist profits).

1 May SwedenSwedish Marxists say: Join the IMT and help build the forces of Marxism!

Pandemics can happen in any society. But it is the capitalist system that caused the current pandemic to wreak such havoc, and has provoked an economic crisis of such magnitude. In a system where production is run for profit for the handful of capitalists that own the big banks and monopolies, profit will always come before lives. In a nationalised, planned economy we could quickly reorganise the production to provide everything that health care needs. And in a socialist world without nation states would cooperate to help each other solve every crisis – instead of competing against each other and peddling narrow-minded nationalism.

A genuine socialist society would be run by the workers themselves, not politicians and bosses who are free to introduce measures that endanger the lives and health of ordinary workers because they won't be affected by them. It is the workers that know best what needs to be produced, what jobs are essential and how things should be produced.

We don't need the capitalists – they need us. The working class has the power to stop production in a single workplace, and the whole of society and therefore also the power to transform society, by the revolutionary seizure of power from the capitalist class and its bourgeois state. A socialist world, free of national frontiers, with a nationalised planned economy run by workers democracy – that is what we fight for.

To all those who want to fight for a socialist revolution in Sweden as a part of a world revolution to overthrow capitalism: join us and help us build the forces of Marxism. This system had its day. Let’s fight for socialism in our lifetime.

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