World News

Swedish parents fret as schools stay open amid European virus shutdown

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - “I think the Swedish government is mad. What are they waiting for?” said Theodora Papadimitropoulou, whose 15 year-old daughter is still in class in Stockholm despite most of Europe closing its schools to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“They are not reacting fast enough,” she said. “Schools are breeding grounds for infection to spread.”

Papadimitropoulou is one of a growing number of people both inside and outside Sweden critical of the authorities’ decision not to close schools to slow down the virus, which has now killed more than 24,000 people worldwide.

Critics argue that while children generally appear less affected by the virus, they can still spread it to family members and to others.

“Each infected child infects two to three other children a week, who then infect their parents and grandparents,” said Jorn Klein, Associate Professor in Microbiology and Infection Prevention, at the University of South Eastern Norway.

“From a pure infection prevention perspective, it does not make sense to keep the schools and kindergartens open.”

Earlier this week a group of senior health care officials sent a letter to the government calling on it to take stronger measures to fight the spread of the disease.

“Our nation should not be the exception in Europe,” the letter said. “We request that our Government takes action now!”

Sweden had around 3,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus on March 27 and 92 deaths. While Sweden has closed universities and upper secondary schools, it has resisted sending younger children home.

The Swedish Health Agency says that it does not believe school children are transmitting the disease to a great extent and that the costs of drastic measures outweigh the benefits.

“We know that if you close schools, it has consequences in society in general ... if many parents have to be at home who work in healthcare or in other critical jobs,” said Anders Wallensten, an epidemiologist at the agency.

Johan Giesecke, former chief epidemiologist at the agency, said most of the measures taken across Europe lack any scientific foundation. “Things like border closure, school closure - the effect on epidemics is quite unknown,” he said.

But while scientists bicker, many Swedes feel torn about the strategy.

“Of course we’re worried because we have teachers in risk groups who do not want to infect anyone or be infected by others,” said Sara Svanlund, a 47-year-old maths and science teacher at the Mollevang school in Malmo.

“But we also feel that we have a big responsibility to society, to keep society functioning. So I have mixed feelings.”

Reporting by Simon Johnson; editing by Niklas Pollard and Hugh Lawson