Sweden grabbed all the headlines earlier this year due to its laissez-faire approach to Covid-19. The Nordic country was one of the only European countries to not enforce a lockdown (the other being Belarus), which led to massive media attention around the globe. But has this strategy paid off? And should the U.K. be looking to Sweden for insight on the next domestic strategy for Covid?
The idea stemming from Sweden’s Chief Epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, was that a slow spread would prevent a harsh second wave. As more Swedes carried the vital antibodies needed to stop the virus, the spread would slow, meaning that by winter (during the midst of flu season), they would fare better than their neighbours Finland and Norway. These benefits would come at the expense of having more people infected early on in the pandemic.
Another factor that played a role in the country’s decision was of course the economy. With harsh lockdowns across Europe wreaking havoc on all economies, Swedes believed that keeping their economy open would minimise the negative economic impact.
Sweden avoided government restrictions and instead adopted a light-touch strategy. Whilst others banned large gatherings and closed shops and restaurants, Swedes were pictured going about their lives almost as normal, with masks few and far between. The Swedish approach seemed to attract many supporters – with those tired of lockdown living growing increasingly jealous of Sweden’s still busy bars and relatively uninterrupted social lives.
Did it work?
The short answer is increasingly likely to be no.
As cases grow in Sweden, the evidence appears to show that the country has got their response wrong. Sweden has suffered over 6500 deaths, in comparison to both Norway and Finland who are yet to see deaths reach over 400.
In fact, as of 29th November, the chief Swedish epidemiologist, who masterminded Sweden’s unique approach, has been ‘side-lined’ by the government. The government seems to have lost faith in the science behind this approach as more refutations of the Swedish strategy become clear over time.
This month the number of deaths per capita in Sweden has risen dramatically, suggesting the second wave may grow even larger than the first. From the 28th October to 25th November, Sweden recorded 630 deaths, whereas Norway recorded only 30. Adjusting for population size does Sweden little favour, as the per capita of Sweden’s death rate is 10 times that of Norway’s.
Evidently, the Covid-19 figures seem to heavily suggest that the policy wasn’t successful in curbing the virus, but how did the economy fare? The International Monetary Fund (IMF) assessed that during the first quarter of 2020 the loose approach did seem to minimise economic damage when compared to other Scandinavian countries, but more recent data points to other conclusions.
In fact, there was little economic gain for the country. Sweden is a small open economy and as such is heavily reliant on global value chains. With so many of its trading partners shutting down, Sweden was unable to operate as normal, so growth undeniably slowed, as did demand for its exports. Domestically, general economic uncertainty meant consumption spending in Sweden followed patterns seen by the rest of the world – the threat of recession and job losses led to a decrease in spending.
This figure shows Sweden failed to gain any economic advantage stemming from its policies, and suggests they took the wrong approach.
Looking ahead, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) has predicted some rather grim outcomes. The ECDPC has said that in December the peak death rate for Sweden may even surpass that of April’s highs, which is particularly worrisome considering thousands have already died.
It seems that the Swedish government’s dismissal of the mastermind behind the strategy represents a new stage in their fight against the virus. Recently the government has been more strict and tougher measures are now in place to stop gatherings, and ban alcohol sales after 10pm. As cases grew in Sweden in early November, Stefan Lofven, the Prime Minister of Sweden, said “Don’t go to the gym, don’t go the library, don’t have dinner out, don’t have parties – cancel!” Clearly the country has woken up to the reality - many excess deaths and no economic advantage. It will be interesting to see how the figures compare to their neighbouring countries in the months to come, only time will tell.