by Lars Bungum
Monday, 26
April 2021
Explainer
07:00

Why Sweden and Norway are more different than you think

Comparing countries that may seem alike can obscure more than it reveals
by Lars Bungum
Credit: Getty

It’s always tempting to lump the countries of Scandinavia together, especially since the Covid pandemic when Sweden took a different course of action to its neighbours (and most of the world). But for international readers who may not be as familiar with the region as us locals, comparing countries that seem alike may obscure more than it reveals.

To date, Sweden has had nearly a million Covid cases and 13,923 deaths, whereas my native Norway has only had 109,581 cases and 735 deaths. So how is it possible that two countries that share a 1630km border have had such divergent outcomes? Media commentators are quick to point out the differences in policy, but it’s worth taking geographical differences into account too.

First, a bit of history. Back in the 13th century, historian and Icelandic writer called Snorre Sturlason, the author of Heimskringla, described deliberations between Olaf II The Holy of Norway and Olof Skötkonung of Sweden, which were not entirely cordial. Upon a negotiated truce, Olof was furious that he had to give up Bohuslän, and, mid-tantrum, shouted out: “Men i Norge är bygden liten och därtill spridd” (in Norway, the countryside is small and scattered).

This still holds true today. Consider county-wide densities and you will see Olof’s point:


In Norwegian political discourse, the regional dimension is very important. Often “levende bygder”, loosely translated into “living villages“, has been a goal in Norwegian policy, and huge subsidies are given to people willing to live in non-urban areas. Sweden, by contrast, chose to focus its resources on urbanisation.

Norway also has smaller houses, less dense housing, and no skyscrapers, which could serve as natural obstacles to the spread of the virus.

But another important difference between the two countries is topography. The populated part of Sweden is, compared to Norway, flat. The body of the “Norwegian bottle” has a range of mountains through it called “langfjella” (“the long mountains“), which is visible on a topographical map of Scandinavia:


As a result, Norway’s population is geographically dispersed. Travelling by land is difficult. And unlike Sweden, which built proper highways in the 1950s, Norway had a much harder task connecting its cities with infrastructure after Nazi occupation. Instead, Norway built small cheap roads that we are still burdened with. To give a few examples: Oslo to Bergen, the two biggest cities, takes 7 hours by car.

To mitigate our road problem, especially in the North, Norway chose to build a network of small airports, supported by subsidised air travel to remote areas. So when the pandemic struck, you could, essentially, seal off the cities from one another by restricting air travel, as roads were never a viable alternative.

Contrast this to Sweden. Stockholm-Gothenburg is 5 hours by car, 3 hours by train; Stockholm-Malmö 6.5h driving, 4.5h train; and Gothenburg-Malmö 3h driving/train. The density map of Scandinavia below illustrates how Sweden’s populated areas are inter-connected and not pocketed-off, as in Norway. This is, perhaps, the most compelling reason for why Sweden is more similar to other European countries than Norway.


Norway only really has one metropolitan area — Oslo. So the task was always to keep the pandemic contained there. If anything about the Norwegian response deserves praise, it would have to be that this was done successfully. Oslo is big enough (over one million strong in the urban area) to have all sorts of metro problems, such as paperless immigrants, childhood poverty, crowded housing, as well as gangs, mafias, and violence.

Oslo was the Norwegian epicenter throughout waves 1,2, and 3. The latest official reporting states that 66% of the cases were registered in Oslo and the surrounding Viken county with the leading daily newspaper VG reporting an even higher share of deaths. However, the risk of it spreading further into the country was much lower than Sweden or the United Kingdom.

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Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

Thank you. That was illuminating. I didn’t know any of that and I wish someone had explained it to me sooner.
I wonder, though, from your pictures Finland looks more similar to Sweden than Norway. As Finland is having an equally low tally, what is going on there?

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrea X
Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrea X

As of 4/22 CV19 death tolls per million:
Sweden: 1,378
Finland : 163
Denmark:427
Europe:1,330
So depending on your frame of reference the cost of freedom in Sweden has been high (Nordic comparison) or very low (Europe comparison).

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

Sweden had the same no of deaths per million in the last 7 days as Norway (5), way below Germany (20) Belgium (23), France (32), Italy (38), Greece (52) and Hungary (149).
The European country with a population over 1M with the lowest number of deaths per million in the last 7 days is UK (2)

Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Vaccine effect.

Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
1 year ago

My late wife was Norwegian, and thus our kids are half, and I had never quite grasped this quite as outlined.
Fascinating. Thank you.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago

Undoubtedly true. Now look at Denmark – which is even flatter, more closely settled, and with closer transport links that Sweden is. And which had a pandemic much more like Norway’s than Sweden”s. There may be other differences (in travel patterns, holiday timings, whatever), but once you start looking at detailed analysis, you ought to look more widely, and not limit yourself to the most appealing comparison.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

For a start it would be interesting to know if they managed to shield nursing homes in Denmark.
Sweden, by their own admission, failed spectacularly on this front.

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Precisely. So why not compare Sweden to Belgium, the Netherlands, or even Peru?
How about Texas? How about New York?
Once you start looking you find that NPI policy has had little to no discernible effect in the figures pretty much anywhere outside of those nations who took the Chinese approach.
You either go the full Chinese, or you don’t bother because it makes little difference.

Last edited 1 year ago by Neil Wilson
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Neil Wilson

Some comparisons make sense (Sweden vs Denmark/Netherlands) other don’t.
Sweden is interesting because they followed from day 1 a different “strategy”. Also, purely in Swedish domestic context, the government has constantly been caught changing directions while pretending not to do so.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Neil Wilson

‘Full Chinese’? You mean ignore it except for show examples of lockdown. During the big holiday where Chinese travel back home they traveled freely by the hundred millions with no consequence. I think the Chinese just do not suffer from covid, China 3 deaths per million wile pretty much business as usual, Europe/USA 1800 deaths per million with lock downs.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I don’t think the author was trying so much to justify the different coronavirus outcomes as to argue against the commonly-held belief in this country that all Scandinavian countries are similar, but agree that in the context, a reference to at least Denmark would have been useful.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Rasmus, the pandemic hit the Somali community in Sweden much harder than the population in general. Somalis also were disproportionately employed in nursing homes where doubt has been cast on the linguistic competence of some of them to properly carry out the special COVID precautions required of them. Here the Swedish and Danish cases are quite different. In Sweden, Somalis are 0.69% of the population, in Denmark 0.37%, which is about the same as their share in Finland (0.38%). For comparison the UK share is 0.16%. Surprisingly, to me anyway, Somalis in Norway are 0,80% of the population. Beyond the simple population shares, there is the question of integration, and the Somali diaspora in Sweden is, arguably, the worst integrated of any of the Nordic countries, so the Swedish Somalis may still be having a more negative impact on the Swedish stats than the Norwegian Somalis on the Norwegian stats. Possibly these shares are out of date and it is not correct to believe that Somalian Swedes are more poorly integrated than elsewhere in the Nordic region or in the West in general. I’m an economist, not a sociologist or a health expert, so I don’t claim to know. Since it is a controversial issue that has already caused me to lose a friend I would hope that Freddie Sayers examines it in a special issue of Lockdown TV. He is just the man to do it. I wouldn’t care to prejudge the outcome.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

Doesn’t explain Denmark (flat, high density, etc) performance vs. Sweden.
As far as we can tell closing early (especially nursing homes) was key to the poor Swedish performance (and UK btw).

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

and the USA, and half of Europe, it seems.

Magnus Lindberg
Magnus Lindberg
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

It’s complicated. Most countries failed to protect nursing homes, incl norway (as in percentage of total deaths). Maybe it’s as simple as humans really can’t control nature in the way we might think!

Last edited 1 year ago by Magnus Lindberg
Eva Rostova
Eva Rostova
1 year ago

Policymakers in South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, China etc would probably disagree with you to at least some extent on that point.

George Carty
George Carty
1 year ago
Reply to  Eva Rostova

All of those except China sealed their borders when cases were still few in number, and all those except Australia (which used enforced house arrest instead) used centralized quarantine for the infected, and often for their contacts as well.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 year ago

This virus is hitting every country in a different way, depending on demographics, geography, climate etc. So much so it’s very hard to get a clear, consistent picture of it. I’m wondering if I can get a bet down anywhere that, once it’s over and all the analyses have been done and dusted, it will transpire that, correcting for all the factors mentioned and all the others which may apply, this thing wasn’t near as deadly or dangerous as the panic mongers would have you believe.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

When the dust has settled, Francis, we’ll find the positions on the international league table are affected far more by population density, age profile, and the general health of the population at the start of the pandemic than the public health measures that were or weren’t taken.
The UK has an elderly, unhealthy population living, for the most part, in high density urban areas. Nuff said.

rolf_herman
rolf_herman
1 year ago

There are important differences between Norway and Sweden. Often to then advantage of Norway, That is my personal opinion.

Covid-19 is a complex phenomenon and simple comparisons might be unjust. Is it the same virus familly et cetera. That requires a thourough investigation without political bias.

We who live in Sweden have, most of us felt the restrictions.
Sweden is not really ready for the challenges it now is facing.

Richard E
Richard E
1 year ago

Sweden has a higher % of urban population than the UK.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

If you compare the same factors between England and Scotland they more than explain the fairly marginal difference in COVID outcomes between us. IE they have nothing to do with the political posturing of the wee Krankie. So the reason why the Jocks have been kept out of the pubs for longer is purely down to venal politics, and nothing to do with COVID. Though if you were to talk about the higher obesity and alcoholism that wee Krankie has done nothing about, then maybe there would be a case for it. But Jocks don’t really have a problem drinking copiously and eating deep fried Mars bars at home, so that would not justify what she has done either.

George Carty
George Carty
1 year ago

Wasn’t another big factor (determined by genetic sequencing) in why Sweden did so much worse than other Nordic countries the unusually late half-term break in Stockholm, which allowed Stockholm to be heavily seeded from the UK and New York City (neither of which were seen as danger areas at the time, unlike Italy or Austria)?
It is notable that Sweden’s first wave was far more concentrated in Stockholm than its second wave.

Paul Morgan
Paul Morgan
1 year ago

One of the fascinating facts I read elsewhere on this subject is that Sweden is actually more urbanised than the UK. True, the difference is small but it serves as a warning to simplistic people who only calculate numbers per sq km. Swedes live in towns and cities to a greater extent than inthe UK. Think of the any small rural communities in such areas as Cheshire, Northumberland, Warwickshire and the home counties and you will realise why.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Morgan

Figures for population density in the UK are heavily distorted by the inclusion of the sparsely populated Highlands and Islands. For similar reasons, national comparisons don’t really enlighten. Regional comparisons are more meaningful.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

I recommend people find the (easily searchable) data on yearly mortality rates/numbers in the Scandinavian countries. Sweden had a very “off” year in 2019, where they had very low mortality for some reason, especially in older/NH age groups. (? did they do a particularly good job protecting against flu outbreaks? Or some other factor? …?)
Anyway, they were basically set up to burn off their “dry tinder”, whereas neither Norway nor Finland had the mortality dip in 2019. If you average the mortality over the 2018-present, it is a wash between the three countries. But since most folks interested in these issues have COVID blinders on, they only see that Sweden lost more to COVID. Sweden will never get credit for their low mortality in 2019 that likely gave many elderly folks some extra life, they will only be criticized for their poor COVID response – criticism that is, after sober reflection, only partly justified.

reynoldsrussell1
reynoldsrussell1
1 year ago

According to the map you display, Finland’s population density is similar to Sweden’s, yet, iirc, Finland’s covid stats are similar to Norway’s.