Sweden is seeing a spike in demand for face masks, several drug stores said, ahead of a possible U-turn by the authorities, who have so far doubted their effectiveness in fighting the spread of the new coronavirus.
Unlike most other European countries, Sweden has kept many businesses, restaurants and most schools open, while not recommending the use of face masks, which are very common in Denmark, Norway and Finland.
But after the public health agency (FHM) said two weeks ago that it may issue new recommendations, Swedes appear to be stockpiling.
Face mask sales at online pharmacist Apotea have increased to around 400,000 units a week in the past two to three weeks from 150,000 in previous weeks, CEO Par Svardson said.
A man wearing a face mask walks past a line of people not wearing masks as they wait to board a boat at Stranvagen in Stockholm. Mask sales have soared in the past three weeks since the public health agency suggested they might be of benefit
At drug store Apoteket, with total annual sales around 20 billion crowns ($2.32 billion), face mask sales have jumped about 30% in the same weeks, to weekly levels equivalent to an entire year’s turnover, according to a spokesman.
‘It feels like FHM, from their previous hard line of saying ‘no’, are now open to looking at saying ‘yes’,’ Svardson said, adding he would expect a five- to tenfold increase in face mask sales in the event of a change in recommendations over their use.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has said he thinks masks can do more harm than good
Sweden has so far rejected recommending or mandating the use of face masks in public spaces, as many countries in Europe have done.
But health agency director-general Johan Carlson told a press conference on August 18 that there may be situations – such as doctor and dentist visits and on public transport – where face mask recommendations could be issued.
The Scandinavian country has the world’s seventh highest death toll at 575 per million inhabitants, mainly due to its failure to protect the elderly in nursing homes in the early stages of the pandemic.
But unlike many countries in Europe seeing a resurgence of cases – such as France, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Italy – Sweden’s data now seem to be pointing in the right direction: down.
Its daily death toll peaked in April and is now down to a couple of deaths a day, the number of cases have been in steady decline since early June, and its R-number has pretty much stayed under 1 since early July.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency insists scientific studies have not proven that masks are effective in limiting the spread of the virus, suggesting they can do more harm than good if used sloppily.
Swedish summer in full swing outside a restaurant on a gorgeous evening in Gotland on July 17
‘There are at least three heavyweight reports – from the World Health Organization, the (EU health agency) ECDC and The Lancet report that the WHO cites – which all state that the scientific evidence is weak. We haven’t carried out our own assessment,’ he recently told reporters.
KK Cheng, an epidemiologist at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, told AFP that such reasoning was ‘irresponsible’ and ‘stubborn’, and called on Sweden to change tack.
‘If he’s wrong, it costs life. If I’m wrong, what harm does it do?’
Tegnell insists Sweden’s numbers have gone down since routines were improved at nursing homes, and because people now stay home when they are sick, work from home, and respect social distancing.
‘To try to replace those measures with face masks won’t work,’ Tegnell insisted.
‘Several countries that introduced masks are now seeing big resurgences,’ he said on August 14.
Jenny Ohlsson, owner of the Froken Sot shop selling colourful fabric masks in Stockholm’s trendy Sodermalm neighbourhood said: ‘I think it’s a little bit strange. Sweden, as a small country, they think they know better than the rest of the world. (It’s) very strange.’
Sweden’s Nordic neighbours were long holdouts on the mask issue as well, but they have all changed their tune in recent weeks.
Finland now recommends wearing masks in public places, Norway advises it on Oslo public transport, while Denmark has made it mandatory on all public transport and in taxis.
A group of 23 doctors and researchers in June urged Tegnell and the Public Health Agency to reconsider the no-mask policy in an editorial in daily Aftonbladet, a call that has been repeated at regular intervals since then, by them and others.
Tegnell’s standard response is that public health officials are ‘keeping an eye on’ the issue and could introduce the measure if deemed necessary.
It remains to be seen whether Sweden’s COVID-19 transmission will continue to decline.
Stockholmer Gilbert Sylwander, 69, peruses the masks at Ohlsson’s shop, admiring the bright designs. He says he has faith in the Swedish Public Health Agency’s strategy.
‘It seems as if they were right about many things with their research,’ he tells AFP.
He does not wear a mask, but would if it were official policy.
‘If everyone else is wearing a mask and they are afraid of being contaminated, of course I will use a mask, just to be polite to other people.’ Mr Sylwander said.