The Corner

Health Care

It’s Too Early to Declare Sweden a Success Story

People watch TV as Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven addresses the nation on coronavirus crisis during a broadcast on Swedish national public television in Stockholm, Sweden, March 22, 2020. (TT News Agency/Anders Wiklund via Reuters)

John Fund and Joel W. Hay argue on the homepage that Sweden’s lax approach to the coronavirus has been successful, and further that its success will “probably” prove the recommendations of most epidemiologists wrong. “If social isolation worked, wouldn’t Sweden, a Nordic country of 10.1 million people, be seeing the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocket into the tens of thousands, blowing past the numbers in Italy or New York City?” they ask. But the jury seems to be out on the wisdom of the Swedish approach.

One reason is time. Fund and Hay note that Sweden has had fewer COVID-19 deaths, cumulatively, than Switzerland, a similarly sized country that implemented far harsher policies. But Switzerland’s outbreak began before Sweden’s, and when the case-fatality rate trajectories of the two countries are compared, they actually look quite similar. In fact, over the last week, Sweden’s death toll has grown faster than Switzerland’s: at an average geometric rate of 1.19 per day, compared with 1.11 per day. That Sweden had a later outbreak than Switzerland — or, for that matter, than Italy or the United States — is not obviously the result of public policy (geography, climate, and travel come to mind as alternative explanations), nor does it guarantee that the trajectories will remain similar.

Moreover, there are signs that Sweden is anticipating tragedy in the coming weeks, and considering tighter measures accordingly. Its prime minister warned this weekend of “thousands” of deaths; its parliament is nearing a deal on a bill that “would allow the government to take measures — such as closing schools, shopping malls, or restaurants — without first getting parliamentary approval.” Is it possible there is political pressure on the government to bring its policy in line with those across the Western world? Maybe, but it is also possible the government is revising its policies in light of new information. As much as I believe that healthy societies should allow the questioning of orthodoxy, and as much as I’d like to see the Swedish experiment succeed, I can’t say I’m convinced that it will — much less that it will show social distancing to be useless.

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