In Depth

Swedo-science: has Sweden’s coronavirus experiment failed?

The Nordic country currently has world’s highest mortality rate per capita

Denmark, Finland and Norway are considering excluding Sweden when lifting travel restrictions for other countries, amid concerns about the neighbouring Nordic nation’s high coronavirus death rate.

Sweden has the highest mortality rate per capita at this stage of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Financial Times’ seven-day tracker. It was the only Scandinavian country not to implement a national lockdown, instead opting to keep primary schools, restaurants and bars open, and even encouraging people to go outside.

What is the Swedish model?

Sweden’s Public Health Agency, known as the Folkhalsomyndigheten, has given the green light for restaurants, bars and primary schools to remain open throughout the outbreak.

The Folkhalsomyndigheten said in March that its relaxed approach to social distancing would result in “a slow spread of infection, and that the health services have a reasonable workload”.

However, the country did introduce some precautionary measures. As the i news site reported at the time, “everyone in Sweden is urged to stay at home if they are at all sick”, and to avoid non-essential travel within the country, work from home if possible, and cancel non-essential visits to elderly people or hospitals.

Universities and senior high schools were also shut, and gatherings of more than 500 are banned.

What are the problems with the strategy?

Sweden recorded 6.08 deaths per million inhabitants per day on a rolling seven-day average between May 13 and May 20. “This is the highest in the world, above the UK, Belgium and the US, which have 5.57, 4.28 and 4.11 respectively”, The Telegraph reports.

The country’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has argued that it is misleading to focus on the death toll over a single week.

“This is something we should look at when it’s all over,” he told Stockholm-based newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

But “it is of course terrible that we have such a higher death toll at our elderly care homes, and there are lessons to be learned for those who work in these institutions”, Tegnell added.

Prime minister Stefan Lofven admitted last week that the country had failed its elderly. “We did not manage to protect the most vulnerable people, the most elderly, despite our best intentions,” he said.

The Swedish Public Health Agency told the BBC that care home residents accounted for 48.9% of the nation’s deaths up to and including 14 May.

And there are fears that despite the relaxed rules in the country, the population will not have built up enough “herd immunity” to prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections.

A study found that only 7.3% people in Stockholm had developed Covid-19 antibodies by late April, The Telegraph reports.

What are the benefits of the strategy?

Despite the previous study suggesting that very few people have antibodies, state epidemiologist Tegnell said this week that more than one in five people in Stockholm were believed to have developed antibodies to the virus. This would prevent Sweden from being hit hard by the virus for second time later in the year, he claimed.

“In the autumn there will be a second wave. Sweden will have a high level of immunity and the number of cases will probably be quite low,” Tegnell told the FT. “But Finland will have a very low level of immunity. Will Finland have to go into a complete lockdown again?”

Proponents of the Swedish approach also point out that while the country’s death rate is higher than that of its European neighbours, it is not drastically worse considering that the draconian lockdown measures implemented in other states have been avoided.

“London has been a ghost town, its economy shattered like most. But all through March, April and early May, you could still dine at restaurants in Stockholm or drink a cold pilsener on a sunny patio bar,” says The Washington Post.

According to latest statistics, the UK has so far recorded 537 coronavirus-related deaths per million population, while Sweden has recorded 376.

And while the death rate in Sweden is the highest this week, many experts argue that such a hike is to be expected at this stage of the country’s outbreak, with Belgium, Spain, Italy, the UK and France all still reporting more fatalities overall.

What can be learned from Sweden?

Other countries are already adopting Sweden-style policies as they ease out of their lockdowns.

Indeed, many the lockdown relaxation measures being implemented or considered in the UK - including mixing households and the reopening of schools - mimic the state of play in Sweden throughout the pandemic.

International health experts are now looking to the Swedish model - a version of responsible, largely voluntary social distancing that balances freedoms with safety - as something to which other countries should aspire.

“If we are to reach a ‘new normal,’ in many ways, Sweden represents a future model,” Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s top emergencies expert, said in late April. “What it has done differently is that it really, really has trusted its own communities to implement that physical distancing.”

The former chief epidemiologist for Sweden, Johan Giesecke, told The Washington Post that he agreed strict lockdowns could slow the infections. 

But no democratic society can remain in lockdown for many months or years, he told the paper, and “then, what next?” 

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