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All eyes on the Swedish coronavirus experiment Their more moderate response to the pandemic is as much about politics as science

Business as usual on Saturday in Sweden. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty

Business as usual on Saturday in Sweden. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty


March 30, 2020   5 mins

My Swedish passport has always felt a bit like a secret weapon. As a half-Swede who grew up in England, I have wielded it on countless occasions to get out of scrapes and escape judgement. As a national brand, it is almost beyond reproach — you flash your passport and sail through customs in countries from Israel to Sudan, greeted by special smiles of welcome like a visiting dignitary. Survey after survey confirms the same thing: everybody loves the Swedes.

Politically, the Swedes have long served as pin-ups for both the Left and Right. Bernie Sanders makes constant reference to Sweden as a model for his brand of ‘democratic socialism’, while David Cameron used to regularly seek inspiration from his Swedish counterparts on ideas as diverse as free schools, the Big Society and doing away with inheritance tax. More recently, the Right has invoked Swedish concerns about mass immigration as proof that it’s not only baddies who worry about that issue. Whatever your politics, if the Swedes are doing it, it must be OK.

Suddenly, in its response to the Coronavirus, the behaviour of my mother country is not meeting with the usual chorus of approval. By taking a radically different approach, have the Swedes finally lost their famed good sense
 or should the rest of the world once again be looking to their example?

The coronavirus epidemic in Sweden — with 10 million population — is already relatively advanced: 3,500 certified infected and over 100 dead. But the Government refuses to ‘lock down’ the country as a response to the virus. They are following something closer to the ‘mitigation’ strategy that Boris Johnson’s government initially seemed to favour, before the sudden pivot to ‘suppression’.

Today, Sweden stands alone in Europe. Schools remain open (except for over 16s and universities, which are judged to function well remotely and don’t take key workers out of circulation) restaurants and bars are open (although only for table service to avoid throngs gathering at the bar). Gatherings of up to 50 people are still allowed, and there is much discussion over whether families all over Sweden should travel North for their annual Easter skiing trips at resorts in the mountains — all open for business as usual.

In theory, the difference in approach is a technical one: the Swedish scientists simply take a different view. The Swedish strategy is being led by ‘State Epidemiologist’ Anders Tegnell, who rather like Messrs Whitty and Vallance in the UK, has become something of a national leader and is on the television every day. The public health authority which he represents has released detailed modelling on a region-by-region basis that comes to much less pessimistic conclusions in terms of hospitalisations and deaths per thousand infections than the infamous study by Imperial College, about which Tegnell is vocally sceptical. “It’s not a peer-reviewed paper,” he has said. “It might be right, but it might also be terribly wrong. In Sweden, we are a bit surprised that it’s had such an impact.”

Sweden’s number of hospital beds per thousand is the lowest in Europe (the UK is the second lowest), but despite this, Tegnell has identified a number of factors that he thinks make Sweden well placed for the coming epidemic. The number of multi-generational households is very low, compared to say Italy, slowing transmission to the more vulnerable older generation; there is a large geographical spread of the population; and there is an observable tendency for Swedish people to follow advice, rather than need legal imperatives to do so. Families have been advised to avoid visiting older relatives where possible and urged to work from home if they can. It’s roughly Boris Johnson, circa three weeks ago.

Tegnell doesn’t like to describe his strategy as ‘herd immunity’ but he talks openly about the inevitability of the disease passing through a large chunk of the population, and even says that containing the disease like South Korea is doing would not even be desirable, since it will surely only come back. His stated goal is to slow the spread of the infection to a manageable pace, and he doesn’t believe a mandated lockdown is necessary to achieve that.

So far, so technical. But look more closely and the difference between the UK and Swedish approaches is as much about politics as science.

I spent much of the weekend on the telephone to friends, family and journalists from both Left and Right in Sweden and it felt like I’d fallen through the looking glass into an upside-down world. It almost could be the UK, just with a few political factors flipped over.

First, the fact that they are standing apart is a point of pride as much as concern. There is a note of Swedish exceptionalism, particularly when contrasted with longstanding competitors Denmark and Norway (both of whom have opted for a very thorough lockdown). I heard multiple theories as to why their Scandinavian neighbours were different, ranging from Denmark and Norway’s occupation during the Second World War having given them have a residual mistrust of authority, to the Danish government’s political desire to look strong. It couldn’t be further from the UK instinct, which is to take any differences with other countries as proof of our own sluggishness and inadequacy.

Second, the Government is a centre-Left coalition, which changes everything. Alongside a deep-seated Swedish respect for technical experts, this means that support for the more moderate strategy is considered the enlightened left-liberal position; unlike the UK or the US, the knowledge class are fully on-side. Anders Tegnell himself has a left-of-centre feel about him, making regular reference to the importance of equality in the government’s chosen course. This means, although he continues to meet with criticism, there are no online hoards of political activists demanding a lockdown.

The political critics, such as they are, are more likely to come from the Right, such as populist anti-immigration MP Hanif Bali (an occasional guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News programme), controversial Dagens Nyheter editor-in-chief Peter Wolodarski and Quillette’s Paulina Neuding. But they are few and far between: even the populist Swedish Democrats have largely kept quiet. One 30-year-old Stockholmer I spoke to said that the only advocates of a lockdown she had noticed in her social media feeds were “a few far-Right guys and the climate deniers”.

It’s the opposite of the political landscape in the UK, where deep mistrust from the long Brexit battle meant that whatever the Cummings-Johnson government initially proposed was instinctively suspected as bad and wrong by its political opponents; so the virtuous Left-liberal position quickly came to be calling for a more draconian shutdown. Rival experts were found, a campaign developed, and the Government ultimately changed course against a background of huge political pressure.

It is possible — perhaps likely — that as the death toll increases in Sweden in coming weeks they will also fall into line and impose a stricter lockdown. But if they don’t, the experience of that country will offer a vital way of knowing whether or not the unprecedented cancellation of life, population-wide house arrest and destruction of the economy that the UK and so many other world powers have chosen will have been the correct response to this threat.

If, at the end of this grisly period, the deaths per capita in Sweden are much higher than neighbouring Denmark and Norway, the more draconian approach will seem to have been worth it; but if the Swedish experience remains roughly in line with those countries, justifying the enforced lockdown will be much harder, and questions with profound consequences will rightly be asked about the decisions of the UK and the wider world.


Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.

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David Simpson
David Simpson
4 years ago

I also hope they are right. From all that I have read to date, the consensus of expert opinion appears to be a) that the overall death rate in 2020 is not significantly out of line with previous years and b) that those who are dying were going to die anyway from one or more underlying conditions. The problem appears to be treating those affected badly enough to need hospital care and ventilators, who will otherwise survive. Meanwhile we are destroying our economy, society and possibly our minds.

spaarks
spaarks
4 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Doesn’t it make you suspicious when the experts agree? There is, or was, such a consensus only among the Whitty/Valence alliance. Opposing views in the UK and elsewhere are now largely censored within the UK.
You are right in what you say about ventilators, but the UK has been aware of the shortage for some time – since Exercise Cygnus. Read up on that before all reference to it is taken down.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  spaarks

Just seen a Guardian article about Cygnus and apparently a pandemic was considered unlikely. That seems odd given that a pandemic was inevitable, the only question being when and what type of virus. IMO it’s tantamount to criminal incompetence in government.

Richard Gibbons
Richard Gibbons
4 years ago
Reply to  Joe Smith

When you say Government do you mean the elected politicians or the public sector civil servants and senior executives in the NHS who are responsible for the readiness of the NHS ? The NHS holds a unique position in the UK and is lauded by many as the best thing about the UK. Whilst I applaud most of the medical staff that work there, the sclerotic bureaucracy that manages the system needs root and branch reform particularly the procurement process which has failed spectacularly to provide the right equipment to medical staff.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago

I would say the government (PM and Health Secretary) and the civil service. At least some level of stockpiling of relevant medical equipment should have happened.

p b
p b
4 years ago

I hope that Sweden can keep up their brave exceptionalism. I believe that the rest of Europe is making a dreadful mistake but without the counter factual I cannot be proved right or wrong

spaarks
spaarks
4 years ago
Reply to  p b

They sure have made a dreadful mistake and Italy for one is admitting they made a mistake by locking down too late. Their experts have been pleading for the last couple of weeks with the UK not to make the same mistake. Whitty knew better, now look where we are.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  spaarks

Italy is victim of a number of unique circumstances. They include a large Chinese population, for instance. Also, many young Italians live with their parents and grand parents in ‘multi-generational’ homes, which obviously spreads the disease to vulnerable people. The reason for these multi-generataional homes is that young people in Italy either have no jobs or very low paid, precarious jobs. The reasons for this are a combination of the euro, a very poor educations system and all the usual corruption etc.

yaosxx yaosxx
yaosxx yaosxx
4 years ago
Reply to  p b

This looks to be a solution: https://www.thegatewaypundi

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
4 years ago

So (as Cathy Newman probably won’t be heard saying) what you’re saying is that the Left-Wing activist Professor Neil Ferguson deliberately overplayed his “findings” where 500,000 UK citizens were going to die as a result of CV in order to persuade a new and fragile government to change it’s original strategy because it wasn’t going to lead to panic, chaos and lock-downs?

…and, lo and behold..perhaps there is reason to take Ferguson to task and start asking him some questions about his motivations

https://hectordrummond.com/

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

80% of Swedish people live in semi-agrarian settings with far less density. Their food sources include many natural ones. Coming into spring I know my mate’s father will be out picking the blueberries and strawberries that grow wildly on his lake property in the Wormland.

That being said I do believe this managed strategy is better as it lessens the overall impact of this pandemic on the entire nation. Yes you may have more deaths/million up front but on the total over time they will end up being very close and the economic and social impacts will be far less.

The snowflake phenomenon whereby we must destroy all capacity and infrastructure for one life is just nonsense. This has never been the human experience. First Nations peoples left the elderly camped on the road and continued to the winter camp grounds because they would slow and jeopardize the survival of many more if they remained with the group. I think we should ask our elderly, instead of treating them as children, where they stand on risk versus community impact. They will not disappoint. They are not fools but courageous hard as nails community minded souls that will back saving our society from ruin using the wisdom they have garnered through their years. Snowflakes ““ they are not!

Alex S
Alex S
4 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

About 60% of us live in cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants. The share of population living in cites with more than 500k inhabitants is 40%. I would hardly call that 80% living in semi-agrarian settings.

Furthermore, Stockholm contributes to about half of the GDP. Even if only Stockholm is struck by a major uncontrollable outbreak, it will of course affect the rest of Swedish society.

Source: https://www.oecd.org/cfe/SW

With many municipalities or even whole cities (Malmö) basically relying on municipalities in Stockholm to cover their bills (https://sv.wikipedia.org/wi…, mostly due to the failures of mass immigration, you can see that this would not be good.

Apart from that, I agree with you.

Also, it’s VÀrmland 😉 Wormland does sound funnier though!

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago
Reply to  Alex S

Hi Alex,

I do understand your figures are the official ones (60% Swedes live in cities) but my use of “semi-agrarian” is meant to refer to the structure of many neighbourhoods on the edge of these towns. Many countries use 80,000 persons to define a city. I know this is not the case for Sweden sorry I should have been more clear.

I am happy you liked my Australian humour with VÀrmland (Wormland). I am hoping you guys are open for mid-summers this year. Always a good time :-))

davidnk83
davidnk83
4 years ago

To be fair to our government the plan is to flatten the sombrero curve, so that the hospitals are not inundated with patients.

Trouble is the Daily Mail tendency with its army of self-righteous snoopers and millions of readers who are terrified out of their wits beyond what is actually rational, will make it very difficult, if not impossible to lift the lockdown after 3 months never mind 3 weeks.
The Panic has left old duffers me like prioritised over mothers of young children who are having their chemo cancelled. God help them.

There is mounting evidence that millions have had the virus including many elderly- this should force the media to take a more proportionate and reasonable analysis. Though with the huge increase in click-bait that the media are relishing I wouldn’t be certain even then.

Lets hope Sweden sticks to its guns and this will give our government a degree of political cover to lift the lockdown -but I wouldn’t bank on it even then.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
4 years ago
Reply to  davidnk83

Can you provide a source for millions may already have had the virus?

simonnforde
simonnforde
4 years ago

I have just returned from two weeks in the Netherlands. I had lived there for almost fifteen years and six years in Belgium before that. The Netherlands sits halfway, in corona-virus terms, between Sweden and the UK. Much of the advice is similar to the UK, but people are fairly relaxed and responsible about its application. However, there too they talk openly about “herd immunity” as the real solution. I haven’t followed government practice in France, Italy or Spain, but what seems consistent between the UK, Netherlands and Sweden is that their population have high levels of trust in their governments (unlike Belgium, say, which has adopted the draconian approach), and their governments are urging certain behaviours, very reluctant to use law or heavy-handed enforcement. I think I’m more convinced by the “northern” approach and increasingly sceptical about the Imperial College-induced one.

stuuey
stuuey
4 years ago

Every time, I reach the same conclusion…that worldwide, the measures taken have been driven by politics fueled by statistical overload and social media hysteria…ie not by common sense. It’s a good example of bad governance in a globalist arena

pauline.k
pauline.k
4 years ago
Reply to  stuuey

The media has a heck of a lot to answer for, both social and mainstream, in whipping up hysteria and unnecessary fear.

Kristofer Allerfeldt
Kristofer Allerfeldt
4 years ago

A fascinating article. Although I am certainly no expert in this field, I am also half-Swedish and I it makes me consider whether my Swedish father was not right and that much of Sweden’s “success” stems from a very low population density and high level of natural resources. I also wonder if this low population density doesn’t enable a less draconian approach to the Covid-19 crisis. As Mr Sayers argues, we’ll see…

dikkitikka
dikkitikka
4 years ago

It must certainly play some part in it.

jacob.muren
jacob.muren
4 years ago

“The political critics, such as they are, are more likely to come from the Right,—controversial Dagens Nyheter editor-in-chief Peter Wolodarski…”

Now you’re having a bit of a laugh, aren’t you, Freddie? I have strong dislike of both Dagens Nyheter (DN) it’s editor-in-chief Peter Wolodarski, but you’re giving your readers the impression that he is some sort of right wing crank? And controversial? Yea, but only if you view things from the Right – Those other two that you mentioned, Hanif Bali and Paulina Neuding have long been among his strongest critics (Hanif Bali’s been reprimanded by party leadership and demoted for his harsh criticism of DN and Wolodarski). Wolodarski has, as editor-in-chief of the most powerful newspaper in Sweden (by far) been the current ruling coalitions strongest and most important supporter.

The (liberal) establishment have long ignored it when DN, the Swedish Newspaper of Record, was caught being less than truthful (“for a good cause”) because it is THEIR newspaper, defending THEIR values and interests. THAT is the cause of him being controversial, the lies caught in print and refusals to print retractions.

That Peter Wolodarski came down on the same side as Hanif Bali in this issue is pretty monumental because they genuinely loath each other and any opinion voiced by Bali is generally considered poison for liberals such as Wolodarski.

Niko Lourotos
Niko Lourotos
4 years ago

Ultimately, the only true measure of how successful each approach is, will be to compare total annual deaths from any cause, over 5-10 years, until 2022 or whatever.

We will probably find that the Corona effect will be a very slight bump this year, followed by a very slight dip in 2021, then back to the trend. The Swedish bump/dip will probably be very slightly steeper/deeper.

No one seems to be sure what to classify as a Corona fatality right now. There are many indications that the panic is inducing confirmation bias in the reported figures.

The real question will be “was the economic catastrophe worth it?”.

Peter Ryan
Peter Ryan
4 years ago
Reply to  Niko Lourotos

Hmm but even if people die this year who would otherwise have died next year, that’s still a premature death. And I’d suppose if things like healthcare provision can make a big difference to the death rate (as seems to be the case), then the disease can’t be treated as only affecting those who would die imminently anyway – if there’s a gap of 3 percentage points between the two most extreme death rates, that implies a significant chunk of the population for whom this does make a difference.

Of course, considering sanctity of life, the deaths resulting from a severe contraction ought to be weighed up too…

Roz Warren
Roz Warren
4 years ago

Really interesting and what a ghoulish experiment (for whichever side is proven wrong).

If the Swedes do experience a lower death rate (and it needs to be monitored over a longer time period because they might have one peak, whereas other countries with more draconian methods in place might wax and wane if they haven’t built up herd immunity), it would be necessary to take into account the low population density and the different behavioural characteristics of a population that actually trusts its government.

dinoventrali
dinoventrali
4 years ago

The current UK lockdown baffles me. We have been told many times that the elderly and the vulnerable are most at risk, while the vast majority of the rest of the population will suffer very little if at all. In that case why lockdown everyone? Why not simply lockdown the elderly and the very vulnerable, and allow everyone else to continue as normal?

Frederique Patterson
Frederique Patterson
4 years ago

The Government, the Experts & the Media should have discussed the issue together in order to give a unified, informed, coherent explanation & breakdown of what to expect with a step by step breakdown of what actions may be required if the guidelines issued are ignored or proven to be insufficient. They could have explained how different countries were reacting to the situation & asked the people to respond. Taiwan has not closed down, because they proactively used their health data & technology constructively to protect the vulnerable first & then actively monitored airports & their population as they went about their every day business to keep their society & economy working & their children in schools. Should the UK now be monitoring passengers arriving into the country from Iran, Italy & China & use nearby hotels for quarantine? The Media needs to be held accountable for its part in not helping the situation.

Alex S
Alex S
4 years ago

Sweden’s strategy is an experiment as much as Norway’s is.

Honestly whatever happens I have some kind of admiration for Tegnell. He seems like a reasonable, fair person that is doing the best he can.

What is far more interesting, is how he has become the media face of the pandemic response.

The government are probably making a bet: if the strategy fails, they can let him be the scapegoat and he will be figuratively lynched. If it succeeds, both of them will probably still get a fair amount of credit.

With elections coming up in 2022 and a global pandemic with consequences stretching far beyond that, it seems like a god bet.

Richard Gibbons
Richard Gibbons
4 years ago
Reply to  Alex S

A medical pandemic must have medical experts in charge not politicians. In France and Germany it is medical experts who hold the news conferences rather than politicians as in the UK.

Danny Church
Danny Church
4 years ago

Seasonal flu in Britain averages 17000 deaths a year. What is all the fuss about?

Iliya Kuryakin
Iliya Kuryakin
4 years ago

Sweden is abandoning this relaxed approach, so it’s already a failed strategy. We’re all being too Eurocentric about this. The only countries that are worth examining are economically advanced Asian countries (South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan) who have limited the spread of Covid19 in a manner that the West has not.

readaspringer
readaspringer
4 years ago

Two things to consider:
1) nutrition supporting wellness for the overall population &
2) immunizations administered by gov’t mandate has weakened people’s immune systems to present very adverse complications for recovery.

R Fogh
R Fogh
4 years ago

In favour of keeping things open we had Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Bolsanaro, … and Anders Tegnell. All of them were sure they knew the answer. Granted, Tegnell works from a much better fact-based understanding than the others. And, granted, Johnson probably had support from his own Tegnells. But they still have one thing in common, all of them. They are gambling. We do not know enough about this new disease to be sure what would happen, not even Tegnell. And if it turns out his models were not quite as good as he thought they were, a lot of people will die. The Danish equivalent of Tegnell, said, about a month ago, that there was no reason to expect *any* COVID cases in Denmark! Even if it turns out that Sweden does no worse than, say, Denmark, it does not prove that they were right, only that they were lucky. And they may be less lucky next time.

In fact, maybe we should temper our respect for experts after this (and I say that as part of the ‘expert class’ myself). Scientists may have a tendency to trust their theories until they are proved wrong (which then gives them an opportunity to improve their theories). Civil servants have a tendency to stick to established practices that are known to work. Both are generally good ideas, but both can lead to hubris and overconfidence in the face of the unknown. Maybe this kind of decision is better taken by people who are used to take decisions under uncertainty. Politicians?

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
4 years ago

Total number of deaths per capita is one metric, but another is the ability of the health service to cope.
Sure the UK could have followed the ‘herd’ approach but in the estimation of the experts the NHS would have hit crisis.

Italy’s health service and deaths are in full view, is this fake news ? Would the scenario be the same or worse if no lockdown had been given ?

In the UK, is the NHS managing easily or is it already in crisis in some areas ?
With no lockdown would this be the same or even worse ?

What seems to be likely is that Sweden will reach herd immunity within a shorter timespan than other countries.

spaarks
spaarks
4 years ago
Reply to  Julie Blinde

Where are you getting your information from?

The UK DID follow a Herd Immunity approach, right from the start, against the advice of World experts including Italy, France and Korea, and the W.H.O. These criticisms were and are largely suppressed by the UK Press. It was admitted publically by Valance (and confirmed by Whitty) in an early press conference. However the experiment has got out of control and the government is desperately trying to regain control. It is probably too late.
Herd Immunity is produced by a theoretical model, for which we do not have hard data input. Covid-19 could well mutate and not work at all as with the Common Cold, or for a very short term as with Influenza.

yaosxx yaosxx
yaosxx yaosxx
4 years ago

In Taiwan, they are also doing something similar to no obvious detriment – the armaggedonists must be so disappointed – I guess they’ll just have to throw more chicken heads into the cauldron…!

https://www.skynews.com.au/

Up to date figures here: https://www.worldometers.in

Jonathan Karmi
Jonathan Karmi
4 years ago

There’s a political motive behind the British Government’s policy as well. Footage of dying patients in hospital corridors and exhausted angry medical staff would not play well and it’d be exploited mercilessly by the Labour Party at a future general election.

Richard Gibbons
Richard Gibbons
4 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Karmi

I totally agree, the NHS will only improve if (a very big if) we can decouple the NHS from political influence.

pauline.k
pauline.k
4 years ago

Or privatize it.

rdtitus
rdtitus
4 years ago

I hope they will institute genetic re-immigration when the US slides into Venezuelan like nation state failure. According to 23&Me I’m 36% Swedish…

spangledfritillary
spangledfritillary
4 years ago

The “Cummings-Johnson Government” quip. That made me smile. Thanks. Alphabetical order of course.

cameronjensen65
cameronjensen65
4 years ago

I’m between Oz & New Zealand being a citizen of both, currently living in OZ but Covid-19 caught selling up in Queensland to return to rural Canterbury ( yeah Christchurch the earthquake city). From the National Emergency and draconian lockdown in NZ to Mandatory Isolation in Oz, with police helicopters flying over our house ( rural) to ping our mobile phones to check our location to Sweden’s enlightened way! Reading, experience and my gut all go “SWEDEN”!

Patrick Cosgrove
Patrick Cosgrove
4 years ago

Worldometer and John Hopkins both say 3,743 deaths in Sweden. not 100 and over 30,000 infections.

https://www.worldometers.in

https://coronavirus.jhu.edu

Are they wrong?

Whether Sweden turns out to have taken the wrong or right approach, for the final analysis it’s useful to have at least one non-conformist approach in order to learn for the future.