Enlarge /. State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell from the Swedish Health Service has admitted that the pandemic he promoted has not worked as well as he hoped.
ANDERS WIKLUND / Getty Images
View more stories
Earlier this week, Swedish government epidemiologist Anders Tegnell admitted that his plans for how the country should deal with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic did not work quite as he had hoped ", according to a translation. There are probably very few public health officials on the planet who cannot say this, but Tegnell's admission made headlines, mainly because Sweden has taken its own path, starting with relatively few restrictions compared to other European countries hoping that the economic impact of the pandemic will be mitigated.
This approach has made Sweden a political topic of discussion far from the Baltic Sea. Many people who would be horrified by the Swedish tax level and the social security network would suddenly adopt it as a model for minimal government intervention. Sweden's role in internet arguments grew as opposition to social distance measures was organized in a number of countries. As the country's corona virus plan architect says mistakes were made, it's worth taking a look at how Sweden dealt with the pandemic – and what results have been achieved.
The plan and its economy
Some countries in Europe, such as Italy and Spain, faced a rapid increase at the beginning of the pandemic. others had the examples of Italy and Spain as guidelines for their policies. The end result was that most European countries imposed fairly strict social distancing rules, banned large gatherings, closed schools, and restricted access to a variety of companies. In most cases, this has limited the spread of the pandemic, or at least has begun to bring an out of control situation back to something more manageable.
Sweden has largely not done so. Restaurants and cafes remained open, as did the lower grades. Sports events stopped and people were asked to protect the most vulnerable and older populations. However, many of these measures were voluntary. Personal protection, like face masks, has not been recommended for general use.
The hope was that protecting vulnerable populations would minimize the impact of the disease itself, as would the impact of restrictions on most parts of the economy. (Professional sports teams would probably have a hard time with the rules.)
Does that work? The first results looked good as the economic data from the first quarter of 2020 showed that the Swedish economy was growing. Anemic growth (0.1 percent) was still far better than most other countries. And more recently, the country's chief economist said that the year is expected to shrink by around seven percent this year with high borrowing and job losses. This is slightly better than in Europe as a whole, where the EU expects a 8.7 percent decline, but it is not dramatically better.
Anecdotal reports suggest that the companies that have remained open do not see many customers and that the overall economy is heavily dependent on exports that have slowed dramatically. Even if his policies had allowed him to escape the worst pandemic, the country could not completely escape the pain of its trading partners.
The human cost
But it is very clear that Sweden has not escaped the worst of the pandemic, or its epidemiologist would not question its plan. The news that has led to its reassessment is the country's high mortality rate, but there are a number of measures that Sweden is not doing well. Using information from Our World in Data, we examined how the pandemic developed in Sweden.
(Unfortunately, for some unclear reason, Sweden seems to have seen a sharp increase in some cases in the past few weeks. This is probably due to a change in the reporting method. It makes more sense to focus on the trends before this increase, as we will become here. )
We start by looking at the cumulative confirmed deaths per capita, a measure where changes give an indication of how effective the control effort was. For Spain, a country with a severe early outbreak, deaths per capita rose dramatically, but they have now declined due to extensive control measures. In the United States and the United Kingdom, where control measures came too late and in the latter case were half-hearted, the death rate is slow. For Sweden, the trajectory looks similar to that in the US and the UK, as you would expect from the lax controls.
Sweden's confirmed cases per capita are similar to some very badly affected countries.
Our world in data
Sweden is not as bad off as Britain, but has never seen cases like Spain.
Our world in data
Looking at the weekly change in confirmed cases per capita, it is clear that Sweden (even without the recent increase) does no better than the United States and the United Kingdom.
The contrast is far more dramatic when you compare Sweden with its main neighbors, the other Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Finland and Norway saw an increase in cases in late March / early April, but these countries quickly observed how these increases waned after the introduction of a major social distancing policy. Very few new cases are currently diagnosed in these countries in most weeks. In contrast, the rate in Sweden remained roughly constant in April and May – and now it sees about ten times as many new cases as its neighbors. Deaths show a very similar story.
In contrast to its neighbors, Sweden has seen no decline in new cases.
Our world in data
While COVID-19 deaths have subsided in other Scandinavian countries, they are still high in Sweden.
Our world in data
These numbers paint a clear picture: Sweden's attempt to protect its weakest has not been very successful. In terms of disease burden and mortality rate, the country pays a much higher price than its neighbors. These statistics should help suppress domestic economic activity, as people are less likely to be fully engaged in an economy while being kept informed of the pandemic's impact on Swedish health.
While the Swedish economy may not suffer as badly as some other European countries, its strong integration into the world economy has significantly reduced its ability to avoid the global damage caused by the pandemic.
In other words, many public health experts and economists warned that we weren't really facing a binary choice between public health and business. Whatever other lessons are ultimately learned from Swedish experience, it has shown that the experts were right.