sweden restaurant covid lockdown
© JESSICA GOW/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty ImagesPeople sit at an outdoor restaurant in Stockholm on Sunday.
The World Health Organization lauded Sweden as a "model" for battling the coronavirus as countries lift lockdowns — after the nation controversially refused restrictions.

Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO's top emergencies expert, said Wednesday there are "lessons to be learned" from the Scandinavian nation, which has largely relied on citizens to self-regulate.

"I think there's a perception out that Sweden has not put in control measures and just has allowed the disease to spread," Ryan told reporters. "Nothing can be further from the truth."

Ryan noted that instead of lockdowns, the country has "put in place a very strong public policy around social distancing, around caring and protecting people in long-term care facilities."

"What it has done differently is it has very much relied on its relationship with its citizenry and the ability and willingness of its citizens to implement self-distancing and self-regulate," Ryan said. "In that sense, they have implemented public policy through that partnership with the population."

He said the country also ramped up testing and had adequate capacity in hospitals to handle any outbreaks.

"I think if we are to reach a new normal, Sweden represents a model if we wish to get back to a society in which we don't have lockdowns," Ryan said.

The country, which has a population of 10.3 million, has seen more than 20,300 cases and 2,462 deaths as of Thursday afternoon — far higher than its Nordic neighbors, which implemented stricter containment measures, the latest data shows.

By contrast, Denmark has recorded 9,206 cases and 443 deaths among its 5.8 million residents, while Norway has seen 7,680 cases and 207 deaths among 5.4 million, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University. Finland confirmed just 4,906 cases and 206 deaths out of a population of 5.5 million.

Sweden's approach has been criticized by 2,300 academics who penned a letter last month calling for the government to reconsider its loose restrictions, Agence France-Press reported.

"We must establish control over the situation, we cannot head into a situation where we get complete chaos. No one has tried this route, so why should we test it first in Sweden, without informed consent?" said Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, a professor at the Karolinska Institute.