Is Sweden’s lax approach to the coronavirus backfiring?

A couple kiss at a park in Stockholm on April 4. (Andres Kudacki/AP)
A couple kiss at a park in Stockholm on April 4. (Andres Kudacki/AP)

With large parts of Europe in lockdown in response to the covid-19 pandemic, one country stands out: Sweden has no mandatory quarantines and few limitations on free movement. Elementary schools remain open; malls, gyms and shopping streets are far from empty.

This is not to say that things are as usual –– mobility has declined considerably in Sweden, although still less than in other European Union countries. But even as provisional intensive care units –– and makeshift morgues –– have been set up in the Swedish capital, and the government is considering stricter measures, some sidewalk cafes are still bustling with life.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has urged Swedes to apply “common sense.” While this soft approach stunned the rest of Europe, Sweden maintained that it will turn out to be more effective.

For people suffering lockdowns across the world, Sweden’s approach might appear tempting to emulate. If Swedes can continue their daily lives and keep their economy going at no higher cost in terms of health, why not pursue the same strategy?

Although much remains unknown, there is already enough data to suggest that this laissez-faire approach constitutes a dangerous gamble with human life. There are indications that Sweden is experiencing a higher death toll than its neighbors. While the Scandinavian countries reported their first fatalities at roughly the same time, Sweden as of April 8 had 687 fatalities, Denmark 218 and Norway 93. In per capita terms, Sweden is faring clearly worse than Norway and increasingly worse than Denmark.

In particular, Sweden seems to have failed to protect its most vulnerable citizens, in part by relying on speculative cultural theories. Authorities have argued that Swedes socialize less across generations than southern Europeans, and that Sweden could let the elderly self-isolate while merely slowing the spread of the virus among the rest of the population until so-called herd immunity is attained. (Although herd immunity is not the official strategy, some officials maintain that there is no other conceivable way to stop the epidemic, praising the original British strategy that the United Kingdom later backed away from.)

But it was never clear how this risky strategy of isolating the elderly while others got infected would work in practice. American economist Tyler Cowen sarcastically asked whether the plan for senior citizens is “encasing them in bubble wrap, or something.”

There are now alarming reports that the virus has spread to one-third of nursing homes in Stockholm, which has resulted in rising fatalities. While it is true that Swedes rarely live with their parents, older citizens are hardly isolated: The Scandinavian model simply outsources care from families to caretakers who visit dozens of clients every week. Caretakers are rarely tested for the virus but have simply been urged to stay at home if and shortly after experiencing symptoms.

Nor is there much indication that the Swedish economy is weathering the storm better than comparable countries. The drop in the stock market and the rise in unemployment are roughly in line with other advanced economies. According to official Swedish estimates, Sweden’s GDP is expected to contract by 3.4 percent this year, which is better than the 5.5 percent decline projected in a euro zone dragged down by Italy and Spain, but worse than the 2.9 percent decline prognosticated for the United States. If these prognoses are accurate, the Swedish experiment might indicate that the economic effects of the pandemic cannot be escaped by a laissez-faire approach, but that the crash is mainly driven by declining global demand, disruption in production chains, and a collective fear and loss of confidence among billions across the globe.

Another lesson in policy evaluation is that we should avoid jumping to conclusions based on “just-so” narratives before taking the time lag into account. With exponential growth, each week is an eternity: Spain recorded its first fatality only one month ago. For all their cultural differences, Swedes might end up infecting their elderly to a larger extent than the Maltese, who rely on travel restrictions and mass testing, while Swedes put much trust in cultural exceptionalism to protect them against the virus.

In the past few weeks, the country has experienced a bizarre nationalistic wave dubbed “public health nationalism” (”folkhälsonationalism”), which celebrates Sweden as an island of common sense in a sea of panic and resistance to science. According to this narrative promulgated by authorities and media alike, cultural exceptionalism — such as high public trust –– makes Sweden particularly well-equipped to manage the pandemic. When asked why Sweden’s strategy deviates from other countries’, Sweden’s influential former state epidemiologist Johan Giesecke quipped, “That is because everyone else is doing it wrong.” He went on to explain how he could be so confident: ”I think we will manage the epidemic without destroying the economy more than necessary. The absolutely most important thing is to protect the elderly from getting infected. I think we succeed quite well in that. It lies in the Swedish national character to do as one is told.”

The public has been assured that Sweden will outperform other countries. Indeed, Sweden ranks among the lowest of 26 surveyed countries when it comes to fear of the coronavirus in a recent YouGov poll –– even though the country ranks fifth-highest in per capita deaths of the countries surveyed.

Time will tell, but we fear that Sweden has picked the worst possible time to experiment with national chauvinism.

Paulina Neuding is the European editor at Quillette Magazine. Tino Sanandaji is an economist with a PhD in public policy from the University of Chicago.

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