Since Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist at the Swedish health department, avoided the idea of a national lockdown to fight Covid-19, his country has been the subject of intense debate.
“Should we have made a Swede?” quickly became one of the most controversial issues in Britain (and no doubt in other countries). Sweden provoked divided opinions as well as the Brexit. Some believed Covid-19 was dangerously relaxed while others idolized its politics.
All they had to do was go to an anti-lockdown protest to see how fanatical some had become about Sweden. I saw one in London where I photographed a young woman with a sign that read “SWEDEN HAS IT RIGHT!” I wondered how my picture of her would age. Would she be confirmed as a brave revolutionary? Or proven wrong?
At the moment, many would say the latter. Sweden has shown problem trends in the fight against coronavirus. While the death rate (6,681) is low compared to many countries, the statistics are almost certainly going in the wrong direction, with cases and deaths steadily increasing. Amazingly, the European Center for Disease Prevention says Sweden will surpass April’s highest mortality rates in December. Between 100 and 140 people are expected to die from the virus each day.
In addition, Sweden does not compare well with its neighbors, whom Tegnell once said would have lower levels of immunity. While Sweden had 630 deaths so far this month, Norway recorded 30 deaths between October 28 and November 25.
Although the Norwegian population is about half the size of Sweden’s, the difference is still big, and if Sweden takes a more Hawkish approach, it doesn’t seem to have much economic benefit. GDP fell 8.6 percent in the second quarter, which was sharper than that of Denmark, Finland and Norway.
All of this has led many to conclude that Sweden has failed and that someone is responsible for that failure. Newspapers quickly point the finger at Tegnell, who they suspect will be rejected by the government for his mistakes.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven apparently wants more control over the pandemic. Sweden is unique in that its health department, unlike the government, is responsible for health policy. But who knows much longer …
On a Swedish Prime Minister’s fourth broadcast showing how urgent matters have become, Löfven warned that the situation in Covid would get worse before it got better and asked Swedes to cancel, cancel or postpone non-essential meetings. The government has also banned public gatherings of more than eight people.
But does this make Tegnell and the entire Swedish approach a disaster? It’s easy to say yes, but the reality – like everything in Covid-19 – is more complicated than the headlines suggest.
For one thing, Sweden has never been as radical as it has been and actually had restrictions at the start of the coronavirus outbreak. High schools and universities have closed, gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned, and health officials have advised those over 70 and those who felt sick to stay home.
Second, there are more favorable comparisons for Sweden – only they do not always get the same media impact:
According to Sunak, the UK’s economic downturn is expected to be 11.3% this year. This would be the second hottest in Europe. Pic.twitter.com/4W7kG5ee9h
– Fraser Nelson (@FraserNelson) November 25, 2020
And third, not all Swedish exit policies are viewed as wrong by other governments. It kept schools open to students up to 16 during the crisis, a decision that is now to follow.)
The reality is that Sweden, like many other countries, has simply refined its strategy in line with new data. For example, in October I wrote that the Swedish regional authorities would soon have their own ability to issue Covid-19 guidelines, similar to Germany’s localized system. At the national level, health officials have become more cautious, warning people to avoid shops, restaurants and public transport. Tegnell was particularly vigilant towards the elderly as a large number of Covid-19 deaths in the first wave of the crisis were care home deaths.
Far from being stubborn as Sweden is often portrayed, its original system was always based on trust. It urged citizens to distance themselves from one another and be careful, but it did not try to legislate for their movements. There were also some logistical issues that Tegnell considered when deciding on Swedish policy, such as the fact that there are a small number of multi-generational households compared to other nations.
Therefore, these nuances must be taken into account when assessing Sweden. Now that the vaccine has arrived, it is tempting to decide which country was “best” and to believe that the “sit down and wait for a vaccine” policy was the right one.
However, there are still so many unknowns, from whether the vaccine will work (we don’t have approval yet), to the extent of the economic damage, to how each small decision will play out over years and decades. There is also a lack of complex data on population density, hospital capacity, and other factors central to assessing a country’s performance. In short, the answer to the question “Should we have made a Swede?” is “who knows”.