The Corner

World

Sweden’s COVID-19 Fatality Rate Is High

A passenger wears a protective face mask as she passes in front of a departures boards at Arlanda International Airport, near Stockholm, Sweden, March 16, 2020. (TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg/Reuters)

Sweden ranks seventh on the list of countries with most COVID-19 fatalities per capita. (I exclude microstates with populations under 100,000.) The six countries with more fatalities per capita are all in Western Europe. (I include the United Kingdom.) The fatality rate in the Netherlands is only slightly higher than in Sweden, but since April 1 it’s grown faster in the latter. Sweden appears to be on track to move up from seventh to sixth place before long.

The United States should learn from Sweden’s response to the pandemic, John Fund and Joel Hay argue in their most recent article at NRO. They think that the lesson we should take away is that Sweden’s response has been a success and is a model that other countries should follow: Go light on social-distancing restrictions, reopen schools, bars, restaurants, and gyms yesterday, and aim for herd immunity.

Arguments for lifting any given lockdown can be made. At this point in the pandemic, however, Sweden’s experience no longer clearly supports them. Granted, the landscape may look different a year from now. We’re still trying to see through the fog. Fund and Hay tout Sweden’s relatively low number of COVID-19 cases per capita, but that figure alone isn’t meaningful unless we know how many Swedes have been tested. In any case, if Swedish policymakers are aiming for herd immunity, they should want the infection rate to be higher, not lower. Twelve percent of Swedes who have tested positive have died. That figure is high — in the United States, for example, the percentage is 7 — and so perhaps Sweden is overcounting deaths related to COVID-19. But perhaps not. We don’t know.

In Sweden as elsewhere, COVID-19 is most fatal to the elderly. Pointing out that Swedes (average lifespan, 83 years) live longer on average than Americans do (79) and that more than half of Sweden’s COVID-19 fatalities have been in nursing homes, Fund and Hay imply that in Sweden the population that has died from the virus is on average a little older than in the United States. They may be right about that, although they don’t produce the statistics that would enable us to make the comparison. “On an age-adjusted basis,” they write, “Sweden has done significantly better than the U.S” when we measure “deaths per million.”

Has it? By how much? To quantify it, we would have to weight deaths by age, but what would be the formula? Should there be a single bright line, such as age 80? The death of someone older than that would count as equal to three-fifths the death of someone younger? Whatever formula we came up with would, I hope, provoke strong moral objections, including some from me. If we’re going to imply that you should interpret fatality figures on an “age-adjusted basis,” we need to spell out what we mean, and we need to be specific.

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