The man with the epidemiologist tattoo – a very Swedish tribute


STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – It’s not every day that the face of a chief epidemiologist is inked as a tattoo. But then it’s not every country that has tackled the coronavirus pandemic like Sweden.

Anders Tegnell was until the start of the crisis an unknown civil servant at the Public Health Agency but has become the face of Sweden’s strategy to keep schools, restaurants and businesses open during the outbreak.

Now the 64-year-old has name recognition on the streets and has been immortalised as a tattoo.

“I think he (Tegnell) is like the face outwards during this crisis and for me, I mean, I think he’s doing quite a good job because he has been standing straight in the frontline and he’s just been doing his job great,” said Gustav Lloyd Agerblad, 32, admiring the image of Tegnell’s face on his arm.

Sweden strategy has not been to stop the virus but to slow the spread enough for the healthcare system to cope. It has not been based on bans but instead on voluntary measures emphasising social distancing and good hygiene.

Even though the plan has prompted some scepticism from policy-makers overseas, around three-quarters of Swedes have expressed high or very high confidence in the Public Health Agency, a survey from Novus showed this month.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s popularity has also surged and more than six out of 10 people have confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis.

“I came up with the idea because I believe in our strategy and I believe that the authorities can’t make us stay at home,” said tattoo artist Zashay Rissanen Tastas as he inked Tegnell’s face onto Agerblad.

“If we keep our distance it’s probably going to be fine.”

Still, more than 2,200 people have died of the virus in Sweden, fewer relative to the size of the population than in Britain, France and Spain but far more than in Denmark and Norway, where authorities have taken a stricter approach.

The disparity with its Nordic neighbours has drawn fierce criticism from some Swedish scientists. But as other countries are seeking to re-start their struggling economies, people have also highlighted the benefits of Sweden’s approach.

On the streets of Stockholm, as in the tattoo parlour, some passers-by spoke highly of Tegnell.

“Everyone loves him. Absolutely. That’s how it is. He’s very popular,” said Tove Falck-Olsson.

But will it last? “We’ll have to see. It’s too soon to say, as he himself says, one has to give it some time and we’ll see,” she said.

Reporting by Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor; Editing by Alison Williams