Sweden has stood out in terms of their COVID-19 response. Its leaders have not placed the country under lockdown, which the head of Sweden’s public health agency called a “draconian [measure]”. Instead, they opted for an approach based around the idea of “herd immunity”. No need to take sweeping measures to prevent people from contracting the virus because infection will lead to the creation of disease-fighting antibodies within the population — or so the thinking goes.
That said, it’s not as though Sweden is just conducting business as usual. Some steps have been taken to limit the disease’s spread. For instance, public gatherings of more than 500 people have been banned. Workers are encouraged to stay home if possible, which is made more feasible by Sweden’s robust social safety net. Universities have also been closed, but grade schools remain open. Many public places — such as night clubs, bars, and parks — enforce social distancing. Nevertheless, all things considered, Sweden has the fewest restrictions of any major European country.
But has this relatively lax strategy worked? All available evidence suggests not. To this point, just 7% of Stockholm residents have developed COVID-19 antibodies. Sweden’s Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has publicly admitted that this number is significantly lower than the government’s own projections.
Sweden also has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates of any country on Earth. They’re now at nearly 400 deaths per million — a figure more than nine times that of neighbouring country Norway. To put that number into further perspective, the United States’ COVID-19 death rate is just under 300 per million.
But perhaps Sweden’s lenient policy can be justified through economic benefits. From the very beginning, Swedish officials have cited economic concerns as a primary driver motivating their unconventional public health strategy. But Sweden is simply unlikely to reap any economic benefit from their current course of action.
Economists at the Swedish bank SEB predict that Sweden’s GDP will drop 6.5% by the end of 2020. The European Commission paints a slightly rosier picture, forecasting a 6.1% drop. Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, however, estimates a GDP contraction of anywhere from 7-10%. These rates are comparable to projections made for European countries like Germany, Finland, and Denmark — all of which have had lockdowns.
All of this information is important to know because it pokes holes in the anti-lockdown narrative. Many advocates against national quarantine have cited Sweden’s approach as one to be emulated. But, by all accounts, Sweden is no success story when it comes to the handling of COVID-19. Even Annika Linde, former Chief Epidemiologist of Sweden, has rebuked the Scandinavian nation’s response. Despite being an early supporter of no shut down, she has since reversed her position, saying the Swedish approach was based on false assumptions.
And it’s possible the worst is still yet to come. This past week, Sweden logged the most COVID-19 deaths per capita in Europe. Sweden is truly suffering, and its problems have been exacerbated by a lack of strong government action.
Of course, the proper response is not to rub Sweden’s libertarianism in its face. That would show a lack of humanity and a fundamental absence of sympathy for the vulnerable. COVID-19 took the world by storm. Pandemics like this occur only about once every century. No one knew quite what to expect, and so responses to the virus inevitably involved a good deal of guesswork. The focus should not be on assigning blame, but rather on acknowledging Sweden’s failings and learning from them.
And if Sweden needs outside help, it ought to be gladly provided for them. We’re all in this together. COVID-19 is an international crisis. The response to it must also be international. States can’t just seal off their borders and hide from this disease forever. The goal must be worldwide immunity to prevent another catastrophic global wave.