Sharing responsibilities, coping with the coronavirus: why Swedish and French response strategies are not that different

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Citizens, governments and academics spend much time these days with one activity: making comparisons.[1] National response strategies to cope with the coronavirus are compared, as well as whether these strategies are based upon expert knowledge and/or political decisions. These comparisons have a strong national focus. Why nations with a large spread of the virus – such as France, Italy and Spain – have made strong restrictions, such as lockdowns, is perhaps not hard to understand. But why have such measures also been taken in nations with much less spread such as Denmark, Finland and Norway? And what about Sweden, with a middle-sized spread but no lockdown? How can we understand these different national response strategies that do not seem to be based on the spread of the virus alone?

Different national responses are shaped by the relationship between politicians and experts. For instance, the UK prime minister made a U-turn when given advice from the Imperial College experts about the possibility of a national catastrophe without strong measures, while government experts in Denmark have been keen to stress that their prime minister took a political decision when initiating a national lockdown. The Swedish prime minister has been accused of being too laidback in accepting the advice of his own government experts, who are experimenting with herd immunity in the population.[2] And the French president demonstrated presidential decision making and showed who is in power when announcing a national lockdown.[3]

We agree that these comparisons are of interest. But there is also something beyond this national focus that we need to address: the broader question of the relationship between governments and their constituent citizens. We argue, from the background of European democracies, that today we can observe new patterns between governments and citizens. This means that the similarities between countries also need to be considered. These new patterns are not caused by the coronavirus, but rather are strengthened by it. However, such an approach is drowned out by the almost confrontational focus on national differences. The problem is that countries are compared as if they were taking part in a football competition: Which country is doing better? Which country is the fastest? Who is winning? Who is losing? Besides such a focus on national differences, there is a need to examine the new kinds of entanglements between governments and citizens.

Democratic countries display a very similar relationship between their respective governments and citizens in that governments want their citizens to act “responsibly,” which in this context means to follow guidelines and to trust experts and decision-makers. To make our point clear, we need to make a brief detour through history, and focus on how forms of Western governance have changed.

Model 1: governments decide, citizens accept 

The development of state sovereignty in Western democracies during the 20th century has been followed by the development of a paternalistic welfare state,[4] comprising a strong focus on trust among citizens. National education programmes, as well as mass health and care systems such as vaccination programmes, are built upon the image of passive citizens happily accepting what they are told and given. Reforms and programmes are developed and implemented for the good of the many, which means protection of, and investment in, citizens’ well-being. This first model still exists today as a first repertoire in the relationship between governments and citizens. Citizens are passive, while governments, public authorities and professionals are active and in charge. In other words, governments demand trust from citizens, which means citizens have to consent to being protected and to being passive. 

Model 2: governments are questioned, citizens participate

Especially from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, the first model has started to show its limits: the generation of 1968 is the paradigmatic example of people questioning all kinds of authority. There are many examples where citizens are particularly active based on a critical assessment of governmental programmes, and not least in the fields of health and medicine. We have seen people doing “popular epidemiology,” and AIDS activists producing medical knowledge. The issues raised by the public have led to the multiplication of sociotechnical controversies. Citizens now often refuse to trust experts and governments, and demand to be involved and to be listened to, and they sometimes demand to participate in the production of knowledge and in risk management themselves.[5] A plethora of adjectives have been used to label such new forms of knowledge production: “collaborative”, “citizen”, “grassroots”, “participatory”, “commons-based”, or “community” science. In this context, trust becomes conditional. Even if citizens do not possess scientific knowledge, they do possess lay knowledge that can be useful, and even crucial, to ensure the objective of protection, and to develop a technical democracy needed for democracy to stay healthy.[6] To put it differently, being a critical citizen is the new chic, and the active participation of citizens has become a second repertoire in the relationship between governments and citizens. 

Model 3: Reassembling trust, expertise and responsibility

The pandemic does not really fit either of these two models. Governments expect their citizens to obey the rules (model 1) and citizens are to be vigilant, proactive, knowledgeable and responsible (model 2).[7] Despite the fact that governments responsibilize their citizens and show more humility, citizens still show distrust, organize protests, and criticize expertise (model 2). 

Many commentators today are observing a new return to the first model, where experts are “on top” and citizens “on tap.” But the current situation is more complex than that. It is not a question of simply trusting experts and governments to recognize their knowledge, since they themselves recognize and also acknowledge uncertainties. Citizens are not asked to be passive. They are asked to be active in very specific ways: wash their hands, keep their distance, wear – and maybe even fabricate their own – masks, etc. Citizens are all asked to take the virus seriously, to be concerned, to know a minimum about its modes of spreading and about its effects on health. This does not mean, however, that citizens are now becoming experts. 

The government expects citizens to be active, responsible, knowledgeable, and vigilant. In order to ensure protection against the epidemic, the government is obliged to delegate an important part of the management of the crisis to citizens. This translates into a more humble and modest position taken up by the government. We can mention here the French president admitting “in all humility, we have no definitive answer” (Macron, 13/4/2020) and the German chancellor saying “There is no template whatsoever for this challenge […] and we have to keep on learning” (Merkel, 30/4/2020). The government must be able to trust the governed, it must make them accountable. And this is what we witness in most, if not all, democracies in Europe, which have presented quite different response strategies, for quite different reasons. 


This leads us to our key argument: despite their differences, European countries have, in essence, opted for the same mode of governance. While the means of control and severity of fines might differ, governments seek cooperation from a specific kind of citizen: a trusting, concerned and informed citizen. Governments in democratic nations can neither rely on stabilized expertise, nor allow their citizens to do what they want. The strategy in Sweden has been recognised as completely different from the lockdown strategies in other countries and has been both praised and criticised as such. The differences have been understood in terms of trusting its citizens, building consent and cooperation and not least to delegate responsibility from the government to its citizens. But this is not entirely different from the situation in France. Governments assume their responsibilities, but, at the same time, they have realised that responsibility needs to be shared among, and embodied by, their own citizens. The paradox is this: on the one hand, citizens have become less active (their professional activities have been constrained, and they cannot travel and move entirely freely), but, at the same time, citizens are asked to be more active, more trustful, more knowledgeable, more responsible. As people’s mobility has been dramatically reduced, their responsibility has become something that is more widely shared, enacted, and discussed than ever.   

Besides comparing national strategies and the links between politicians and experts, it is important to study also how mutual trust is constructed and how responsibilities are distributed (among and between governments and citizens). Such a focus could also mobilise national comparisons, but will lead to different conclusions.[8]

Morgan Meyer is a research director at the CNRS and works at the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation (i3, Mines ParisTech, PSL). His current research focuses on participation and the co-production of knowledge (DIY biology, open source agriculture) and on current debates in biology (synthetic biology, gene editing). He holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Sheffield and has been a visiting professor at the University of Vienna (Department of Science and Technology Studies) and a visiting researcher at the University of Edinburgh (Genomics Forum).

Göran Sundqvist is a professor in science and technology studies at the University of Gothenburg and a professor II at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. His research focuses on the politics of expertise, and his most recent publications include “Technological Fix or Divisible Object of Collective Concern? Histories of Conflict over the Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste in Sweden and France”, Science as Culture, 2020 (together with Yannick Barthe and Mark Elam). 

[1] For academic comparisons, see Hale, T. et al. (2020) Variation in government responses to COVID-19. Blavatnik School of Government Working Paper31; and Davalgi, S. et al. (2020) Comparison of Measures adopted to combat COVID 19 Pandemic by different countries in WHO regions. Indian J Comm Health32, 288-299.

[2] Carlsson, M. et al. (2020) Folkhälsomyndigheten har misslyckats – nu måste politikerna gripa in. Dagens Nyheter DN Debatt, April 14.

[3] Pietralunga, P. and A. Lemarié (2020) « Nous sommes en guerre » : face au coronavirus, Emmanuel Macron sonne la « mobilisation générale », Le Monde, March 17.  

[4] Garland, D. (2016) The Welfare State: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

[5] Irwin, A. (1995) Citizen science: A study of people, expertise and sustainable development. Psychology Press.

[6] Callon, M., Lascoumes P., Barthe, Y. (2009) Acting in an uncertain world. MIT press.

[7] We do not aim to make a historical argument in this article, but, rather, to point to different modes of governance that can partially co-exist. 

[8] The authors are grateful to Yannick Barthe for his invaluable comments. 

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