AN IRISH man living in Sweden has had to flee the country following furious backlash to his campaign – which some alleged posed a national security threat – against the country’s Covid-19 strategy.
Keith Begg, from Limerick, set up a private Facebook group with the aim of “exposing the failed Swedish Covid-19 strategy”.
However, a national Swedish radio report has accused the online group of “attempting to influence Swedish interests abroad”, triggering a torrent of abuse and threats being directed at the 46-year-old dual citizen of Sweden and Ireland.
Now, fearing for his safety after almost eight years in the friendly Nordic country, Mr Begg has returned home to Limerick.
“I received a letter in my postbox referring to me as a traitor, I got hate speech . . . calling me a dirty foreigner,” he told The Irish Times.
“It was getting so vitriolic, I was worried about a brick through the window and the safety of myself, my husband and our two cats.”
Sweden took an unorthodox approach to lockdown; unlike its European neighbours, it refrained from imposing hard lockdowns and has only recently introduced stricter measures – such as mandatory face masks on public transport – that have been in place elsewhere on the continent since last summer.
Current data suggests that Sweden has been badly affected by the virus, as the 12,713 recorded deaths from Covid-19 are, in proportion to Sweden’s population of 10 million, almost five times higher than the combined mortality figures of other Scandinavian countries.
Dismayed by what he saw as uncritical coverage of the government, Mr Begg set up Media Watchdogs of Sweden (Mewas) as an NGO in April 2020.
The “advocacy group” has over 200 “epidemiologists, medical experts, teachers, parents, and HRDs campaigning for change and transparency around the Swedish COVID-19 Strategy”, according to Mr Begg.
The group found common cause as its members were frustrated with receiving personal attacks in response to expressing views that dissented from the Swedish mainstream.
In an undercover investigation that took place in recent weeks, a journalist with Swedish public radio (SR) joined the group’s chat, where listeners were told that members of a “secret” group thought Swedes were being “brainwashed” by “perpetrator” public health officials who should be put on trial.
In addition to using “unpleasant” language and sharing conspiracy theories, SR noted group members had contacted EU embassies to “influence governments in Europe to have quarantine rules for Swedes travelling abroad and to keep the borders closed to Sweden”.
Mr Begg, who is a long-time advocate for human rights and environmental issues, insists he did nothing beyond standard campaigning work.
He wrote to other EU embassies, urging their governments to study Swedish infection data – which he claims was being manipulated – more closely.
He wrote to MEPs, accusing Sweden of human rights violations for denying healthcare or basing treatment decisions to their citizens based on age or underlying conditions.
He also questioned the reliability of the data, showing the modest negative public health effects of keeping schools open, produced by the Swedish authorities.
The intense backlash, from some public health officials, experts and media was, Mr Begg says, “incredibly troubling, like something from an authoritarian state”.
“We have been portrayed as a clandestine group, and I’ve been called a terrorist, when we are just ordinary citizens who advocate in their spare time,” he said.
Prof Andrej Kokkonen, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg, suggests the attacks are due to a growing dilemma faced by Swedish politicians – both in government and opposition – to justify their support for the original strategy as Sweden adopts tighter restrictions at this late stage in the pandemic.
“I was quite shocked by the broadcast because, what they described as problematic are, for me, just normal attempts to affect public debate,” Prof Kokkonen told The Irish Times.
“This is just the normal way a democracy works.”
Mr Begg says he is “exhausted but relieved” to be back in Ireland where, with its tougher lockdown restrictions, he feels safer.
Commenting on his former home – which he has no plans to return to – he said: “Sweden has put itself on such a pedestal of exceptionalist arrogance.
“There’s a very narrow corridor of opinion and, if you fall outside of that, you’re a troublemaker or radical. I’m expecting them next to suggest I’m aligned with the IRA.”