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Making Sense of Sweden

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The White House event to celebrate Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination — a gathering that appears to have spread the coronavirus — would have violated the law in Sweden.

It was too large. More than 200 people attended the Barrett celebration. In Sweden, public events cannot include more than 50 people. Anyone who organizes a larger gathering is subject to a fine or up to six months in prison.

If you’ve been following the virus news out of Sweden, this fact may surprise you. Sweden has become notorious for its laissez-faire response. Its leaders refused to impose a lockdown in the spring, insisting that doing so was akin to “using a hammer to kill a fly.” They also actively discouraged mask wearing.

Ever since, people in other countries who favor a more lax approach have held up Sweden as a model. Recently, as new cases have surged in other European countries, some of Sweden’s defenders have claimed vindication.

How are you supposed to make sense of all this? Several readers have asked me that question, and the answers point to some lessons for fighting the virus. I think there are three key ones from Sweden:

1. It is not a success story. Over all, Sweden’s decision to let many activities continue unabated and its hope that growing immunity to the virus would protect people does not look good. The country has suffered more than five times as many deaths per capita as neighboring Denmark and about 10 times as many as Finland or Norway.

“It was a terrible idea to do what they did,” Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told me.

Given this, it’s less surprising that Sweden’s recent virus performance looks mediocre rather than horrible.

3. Swedish officials have been right to worry about “sustainability.” Strict lockdowns bring their own steep costs for society. With a vaccine at least months away, societies probably need to grapple with how to restart activities while minimizing risk.

Sweden’s leaders do not seem to have found the ideal strategy, but they are asking a reasonable question. “We see a disease that we’re going to have to handle for a long time,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s top epidemiologist, told The Financial Times, “and we need to build up systems for doing that.”

The fact that Sweden is no longer an extreme outlier in new virus cases — even as life there looks more normal than in most places — offers a new opportunity to assess risk.


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  • Lives Lived: In 1979, Carol Paumgarten opened Steps on Broadway, a dingy one-room dance studio in Manhattan. She went on to train three generations of New York dancers, and her studio welcomed stars including Misty Copeland, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Madonna. Paumgarten has died at 76.

The 1619 Project — a series of articles, podcast episodes and more about slavery’s role in American history — caused a passionate debate when The Times Magazine published it last year. It argued that 1619, when enslaved Africans first landed in Virginia, was as much of a founding date for the United States as 1776.

The series received widespread praise, and its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, won a Pulitzer Prize for her “sweeping, provocative and personal essay” at the center of the project. The series also received criticism from prominent historians who argued that it contained inaccuracies, like the claim that the American Revolution was in large part an attempt to protect slavery from Britain.

If you’ve heard about this debate but not yet dug into it, now is a good time to do so. Bret Stephens, a Times Opinion columnist, has published a column explaining why he agrees with the critics. You can also read a letter from five historians, followed by a response from Jake Silverstein, the Magazine’s editor in chief. Jake later followed up with a second note, making a change. And last month, Nikole gave a lecture about the project in Iowa, where she grew up.

Adam Serwer of The Atlantic has written an overview that includes interviews with people on both sides of the debate.

Start off the week with a versatile cabbage salad that breaks up the monotony of your usual greens. Any kind of chicken will work here, be it poached or grilled or leftover rotisserie from the night before. The miso-sesame vinaigrette brightens up the green. And you can use something other than cabbage; any sort of crisp, crunchy lettuce will work.

There are few TV programs as soothing (and beloved) as “The Great British Baking Show.” Since its premiere in 2010, it has remained one of Britain’s most popular shows, inspiring countless knockoffs and even a coloring book. Nearly 11 million people watched the premiere of the new season last month.

“It is a television series, but we always try to think of it as an event, almost like a Wimbledon, or an Olympics,” said the show’s executive producer. The Times chronicles how the show’s comfort-viewing status has reached new heights.

How is the new generation responding to the current climate in America? The Times spotlighted 10 talented young Black poets to help answer that question through their work. They write about fire season, protests, civil rights, girlhood and more. “The smoke in Oakland has hands,” Leila Mottley, 18, writes, describing dangerous streets full of smoke and ash. Read the rest of their words here.

For more poetry, The Los Angeles Times put together a guide to the American poet Louise Glück, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Oolong and so on (four letters).

You can find all of our puzzles here.

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