Sweden now has among the highest per capita death rates from Covid-19 in the world. Why?
The answer is simple. Sweden was lax in its implementation of protective measures in the face of the outbreak, refusing to implement broad stay at home orders for residents, or to enforce recommendations to wear masks or social distancing measures. Other than the government decision to shut down universities and high schools, compliance to public health recommendations was entirely voluntary.
Early on, my Swedish friends seemed proud of their exceptionalism. They sent many of their children to school without many of the protections that are both in place and under consideration in many other countries. Outside the country, many voiced their praise of Sweden’s “common sense” approach, which they wagered would be less economically destructive than stricter measures and would not lead to any greater number of deaths.
They were wrong. Even the chief architect of the Swedish anti-coronavirus plan is able to admit it. In an interview translated by Reuters, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist told Swedish radio that the country clearly could have done better in fighting the virus and that there was “quite obviously a potential for improvement in what we have done.” In particular, he said Sweden should have started testing earlier and more extensively and they should have done more to protect older adults in Sweden’s long term care centers, where more than half of all Sweden’s coronavirus-deaths have occurred.
For all the loss Swedes have endured, there has been no associated economic gain, which is what many claimed was the saving grace of the Swedish approach. According to the European Commission, Sweden’s economic forecast of a 6% reduction in GDP for 2020 is on par with its neighbors, Norway and Denmark who implemented much stricter lockdown measures.
Sweden’s story is a lesson for all of us around what happens when we pull back on social distancing and prudent epidemic control measures. Here in the United States, our epidemic control measures were already relatively relaxed, accounting for our near steady rate of about 20,000 newly diagnosed Covid-19 cases per day for more than two months.
The data from Sweden tells us what is likely to happen next—an ever-accelerating increase in the rate of infection followed by a rising death toll. That, in turn, is very likely to be followed by continued restrictions on public gatherings, school openings, and public confidence in our government’s ability to protect us.
With Operation Warp Speed, one can’t help but wonder if perhaps the plan is to pin all hopes on a vaccine rather than use the public health tools we know can work to control the pandemic. If that is the case, we should be aware that our hope in a vaccine is far brighter than preliminary public data suggests it should be. The current generation of vaccines are likely to offer only partial protection, and likely only to some of us not all. With the new vaccines will come new risks, and unknown safety profiles.
As we contemplate easing public health measures even further thanks to unfounded hope in a vaccine, I ask each of us to contemplate whether the Swedish example is showing us what we will be risking with this approach—our lives, our economy, and our children.