Different countries chose different strategies to combat the combat-19 devastation. One way to combat the pandemic was to focus on how many people died, another was to try assessing the complicated impacts of the various measures taken to combat the virus. When a lot of the functions in a society were frozen, people struggled – especially the most vulnerable. How did Sweden’s Covid-19 strategy work?
Sweden has been both praised and vilified for its “light touch” stance during the pandemic. However, when the second covid winter approached, how well did Sweden’s pandemic control work?
Recently Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell had to defend himself from accusations that his laissez-faire approach to Covid-19 led to thousands of unnecessary infections and deaths.
To focus on how many people who would die, there was plenty of data to lean on. Meticulous records of the death toll were being kept in most countries, especially the wealthy ones, and presented in stylish graphs on various reliable sites.
“Swedish statistics do not differ from other European countries,” said Anders Tegnell. “Now, we are two years into this and Sweden doesn’t really stand out,” Tegnell told the Financial Times. “We are not the best, but we are definitely not the worst. That is what I hear now: how much good did all these draconian [measures] do for anybody?”
To measure the consequences of lockdowns was, however, a lot harder. They appeared here and there as scattered anecdotes and figures. Perhaps the most striking data point came from the US: by the end of the academic year, a total of 55.1 million students had been affected by school closures.
In contrast to the stricter, often lockdown focused, approaches of many European countries—including its neighbors in Scandinavia—Sweden’s strategy has relied on individuals taking responsibility under non-binding recommendations. In the first six months of the pandemic, the Swedish government enacted extensive work from home measures for those that could, as well as remote learning for over 16s.
So, Sweden claims that its loose-reined Covid-19 strategy was working, that isn’t the case when compared with its near neighbors. The New York Times’s national editor who had noticed that the US death toll was about to pass 100,000, wanted to create something memorable — something you could look back on in 100 years to understand what society was going through. The front page was reminiscent of what a newspaper might look like during a bloody war.
Related: Winter Covid-19 Blues in Norway
Tegnell was among those insistent that the lockdowns imposed by other countries were excessive. Compared with other major European countries the number of overall cases and deaths in Sweden was low—just under 93 000 cases and 6000 deaths by 1 October 2020 compared with over 118 000 cases and 10 000 deaths in Belgium, which has a similar overall population size, or the 606 000 cases and 32 000 deaths seen in France and other larger countries.
Compared with its nearest neighbors, however, Sweden’s Covid-19 pandemic has been catastrophic. Denmark has seen just 19 excess deaths per million since January 2020, while Norway has in fact seen fewer deaths than usual over the course of the pandemic.
In addition, tens of thousands of surgeries had been postponed by healthcare services in Sweden. Screenings for everything from cervical to prostate cancer were put on ice. The Swedish police hadn’t tested drivers for insobriety for months, out of fear of the virus. That year, it didn’t seem quite as serious if someone were to get killed by a drunk driver.
The question for the Swedish commission currently investigating Tegnell’s strategy is whether, if it had locked down, Sweden would have experienced rates of infection and death more comparable to Denmark or to the UK.
It was becoming obvious that the media, the politicians, and the public had a hard time assessing the risks of the new virus. To most people, the figures didn’t mean anything. But they saw the healthcare services getting overwhelmed in several countries. They heard the testimonies from nurses and doctors.
But by winter 2020 a second wave with the new alpha variant brought a spike in cases. In the six months between October 2020 and March 2021, Sweden saw 657 309 positive cases and 12 826 deaths.
Fortunately, there is no need to speculate. A study by researchers from Imperial College London, published in Nature in August, modelled the hypothetical first wave death totals in Sweden, the UK and Denmark in scenarios where each country adopted the others’ lockdown strategies.
By the end of 2021, 56 countries had registered more deaths per capita from Covid-19 than Sweden. With regard to the restrictions that the rest of the world had put so much faith in — school closures, lockdowns, face masks, mass testing — Sweden had more or less gone in the opposite direction. Yet its results were not noticeably different from those of other countries. It was beginning to become increasingly clear that the political measures that had been deployed against the virus were of limited value.
However, British researchers found that Sweden would have cut its death rate during the first wave by three-quarters if it had adopted a UK-style lockdown, saving about 4,100 lives. Had the country adopted a stricter, Danish-style lockdown, the death rate could have been cut by 78%.
From a human perspective, however, it was easy to understand why so many were reluctant to face the numbers from Sweden. For the inevitable conclusion must be that millions of people had been denied their freedom, and millions of children had had their education disrupted, all for nothing.
“Obligation does not work by law in Sweden, and it would make people lose trust for vaccines” says Tegnell. “We should work more on spreading information about vaccines that most of the time, unfortunately, gets diluted by wrong and confusing messages.”
How Did Sweden’s Covid-19 Strategy Work? written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top) Screenshot from DW