Sweden has attracted a lot of hostility due to its refusal to implement draconian lockdowns in response to Covid-19. Since March, articles have regularly appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post warning of an imminent disaster for the Scandinavian country or claiming that such a disaster has already taken place. A recent Times article even offered a graph of deaths per million from Covid among European nations that showed Sweden on top.
All this is nonsense. Data clearly shows that Sweden implemented aggressive measures to stem infection rates. What differentiated Sweden was that its leaders thought carefully about costs and benefits, and only adopted measures they believed would meaningfully lower infection rates – without imposing excessive costs on the populace at large.
Sweden did not close workplaces, including bars and restaurants. Instead, Sweden invested a lot of resources in helping people understand how to modify behavior to minimize risks. The result is, according to the IMF, that the European Union’s economy will contract by 7.6 percent in 2020, but only by 4.7 percent in Sweden.
As for death rates, Sweden’s 700 deaths per million is, as the Times reported, substantially higher than that of many countries in Europe. What they failed to mention is that Sweden’s death rate is substantially lower that of many countries in Europe. Somehow, they forgot about Belgium, Britain, France, Italy and Spain.
Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that Covid’s worst damage will stem from the long-term impact of school closures on children’s health. A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that America’s school closures during the spring alone will result in 5 million years of lost life. Yet this is something that does not show up in this year’s data on Covid deaths or GDP losses. And it is something that will not affect Sweden, since it kept elementary and middle schools open throughout the pandemic.
One question is why Sweden has much higher death rates than its Nordic neighbors. A recent paper found that virtually none of the difference is the result of less stringent mitigation efforts. The main explanations for Sweden’s higher death rates are demographic: an unusually low number of Sweden’s elderly died in 2019, leaving a large number of very frail people in overcrowded nursing homes when the virus hit; and Sweden has a much larger immigrant population. Worldwide, immigrants – specifically, people of color – have been particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
In reality, Sweden has navigated the pandemic with both less aggregate loss of life and less economic damage than most of its peers… so far. While it is too early to determine if its approach has been more successful, there is no justification for the media’s hostility toward Sweden or any certainty that its marginally more easygoing mitigation strategy has failed.