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‘But What about Sweden?’ Well, Let’s Take a Look over There . . .

(Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

When you write a piece like the one I did on the home page today, you inevitably are greeted by a cavalcade of “but what about Sweden, huh?” responses. Somehow this Scandinavian nation has caught the imagination of quite a few voices on the right, with a belief that somehow Sweden cracked the code and figured out just the right approach to the pandemic. The widespread perception in some circles on the right is that Sweden enacted few restrictions on citizens’ lives, kept the caseload low, minimized the damage to the nation’s economy, and achieved herd immunity.

None of these assertions are exactly accurate; some are less accurate than others. The reality of Sweden’s policy choices is that they didn’t yield the nirvana the cheerleaders claim nor the catastrophic disaster that the country’s fiercest critics predicted. Perhaps the strongest argument against the lockdowns in the U.S. and most other European countries is that Sweden tried a different approach and ended up with comparable results.

First, Sweden did enact many restrictions on daily life, ones that are comparable to the restrictions in place in much of the United States right now. Sweden banned visits to retirement homes in April. Bars and restaurants were limited to table service, with tables two meters apart, and shut down a few establishments that didn’t enforce those rules. The country recommended that those who could work from home do so and that citizens practice social distancing. Public events were capped at 50 people, and starting in April, the government recommended citizens “avoid any large social gathering such as parties, weddings, funerals and other events attracting many people at the same time.” For businesses, “shops and shopping centers must do what they can to limit the number of people on their premises at any one time.”

The primary difference between Sweden and most other Western countries is that the Swedes never used the formal force of law to get citizens to alter their normal behavior. The Swedish government declared, “you should do these things to protect your health and the health of others,” and — in a concept many Americans will find alien and hard to understand — the overwhelming majority of citizens followed the instructions without any threat of legal penalty. Swedes trusted their leaders and health experts, and in most cases, didn’t need the potential penalty of fines and jail time to motivate them.

Second, Sweden’s caseload and death rate are not quite the worst, but pretty bad, particularly when compared to its neighbors.

Sweden currently ranks 34th highest in the world in cases per million citizens, at 8,638, and ranks 13th highest in deaths per million citizens, with 579. The United States ranks 11th in both categories, at 20,421 cases per million citizens and 602 deaths per million citizens. (It is worth keeping in mind that small counties with an outbreak can rank particularly high when measuring by cases-per-million; Qatar ranks first, Bahrain ranks second, French Guiana ranks third, Aruba ranks fourth, and Panama ranks fifth.)

Perhaps a more useful measuring stick are Sweden’s neighbors. In cases per million, Denmark ranks 88th, Norway ranks 106th, Finland ranks 115th. In deaths per million, Denmark ranks 6oth, Finland ranks 78th, and Norway ranks 87th. By this measurement, Sweden is performing significantly worse than the nearest and most demographically and culturally-similar countries.

The lighter approach on lockdowns meant the Swedish economy was spared somewhat, shrinking 8.3 percent in the second quarter, and the government is forecasting an overall 4.5 percent decline for the year — better than Spain and France, but comparable to the other Nordic countries. The European Union overall saw a decline of 11.9 percent during the same period, so the Swedes did better than average. The Swedish unemployment rate appears to have peaked at 9.8 percent in June, and was down to 8.8 percent in August. That’s actually on the higher end among European Union countries.

Curiously, there’s not much sign that Swedes have developed herd immunity, at least as traditionally understood. Two studies performed in early summer by the Swedish health authorities reveal that only the 7 percent of the population had developed antibodies against him COVID-19; 12 percent had antibodies in Stockholm. One hard-hit suburb hit 18 percent. The country’s government officials have repeatedly insisted that “herd immunity” was never a deliberate goal or strategy of the country’s policies.

There is still time for Sweden’s situation to look better than its neighbors. Right now, Sweden is in pretty good shape. Testing is at record highs, and only 1.2 percent of the tests are coming back positive. The death rate among those infected is low. But overall, the story of Sweden in this pandemic is more voluntary restrictions, a somewhat less bad serving of economic pain, and a death toll and caseload that is pretty bad compared to its neighbors.

Perhaps if the situation in other European countries and the U.S. gets worse in autumn, Sweden will have something of the last laugh. But to the extent Sweden is a success story, it is a story of social trust — Swedes took sensible precautions to prevent the spread of the virus without lockdowns and government mandates. For America to have had comparable results, we would have needed a populace that had as much trust in government officials and public-health experts as the Swedes do.

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