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Did Sweden’s Covid-19 experiment pay off?

The Week UK logo The Week UK 5/9/2022 The Week Staff
One of Stockholm’s busiest shopping streets in February 2021 Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images © Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images One of Stockholm’s busiest shopping streets in February 2021 Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

WHO data reveals Scandinavian country has lower excess death rate than many European nations

Sweden has one of Europe’s lowest Covid-19 death rates despite shunning most lockdown restrictions, new data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests. 

Stockholm chose not to implement a full national lockdown during the pandemic, instead relying on “voluntary changes to behaviour”, said The Telegraph. The decision meant the nation was “deemed almost to be a rogue state” as other countries introduced wide-ranging restrictions to stem the spread of the virus. 

But according to the WHO figures, Sweden had an excess death rate of 56 per 100,000 – well below the global average of 96. By comparison, between 2020 and 2021, the UK’s excess death rate was 109, Spain’s was 111, and Germany’s was 116. 

Light-touch approach

At the beginning of the pandemic, Sweden’s public health officials argued that it would “take years” to see which approaches to combating Covid-19 would be most effective, The Telegraph reported, arguing it would be better to avoid “untested measures”. 

They also took into consideration the “collateral damage” of lockdown, such as “the missed cancer diagnoses, the cancelled hospital appointments, and the lost education”, the paper said. And the decision “appears to have been vindicated”.

Sweden relied on individual citizens’ sense of “civic duty” to protect its population, said the Daily Mail, with authorities advising the population to practise social distancing while schools, bars and restaurants remained open to the public.

Important factors

Experts have suggested that socio-demographic factors could have played a huge part in keeping down excess deaths, meaning that the policy of shunning formal lockdowns may not have worked equally as well in other countries

These factors include “having a high rate of single-person households”, therefore reducing opportunities for transmission, as well as a “low population density compared to countries such as the UK and Italy”, said the Daily Mail.

But Professor Carl Heneghan, an expert in evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, told the paper that Sweden’s decision “not to interrupt transmission entirely but to reduce the pandemic's health impact has largely been vindicated”.

He added that although the country’s “light-touch approach” was “out of step with Europe”, it “avoided lockdowns, and the hit to their economy turned out to be milder.

“The strategy in the future should be to trust the public in the face of escalating risks to their health to make the right choices,” he added.

Economic impact

At the end of the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that Sweden’s economy would shrink by 7%. This proved to be a pessimistic forecast, with the country’s economy shrinking by just 2.8%, “significantly lower” than the EU average of 6% and the UK’s “staggering” 9.8%, said The Telegraph

And Sweden’s economy bounced back from the pandemic faster than any country in Europe. By June 2021 it had overtaken where it was pre-pandemic, with its GDP growth projected to be 4.3% in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022, according to the OECD

Its strong economic performance was in part due to its pandemic response, but also its “heavy reliance on industry” and its “smaller services sector”, said Reuters

Neighbourhood comparison

While Sweden’s death figures are lower than many European nations, comparing its figures to other Nordic countries shows you “cannot call Sweden a success”, Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told the Daily Mail.

He added that it was “always difficult” to compare countries because excess mortality is affected by “many more things” than just Covid policy, such as health expenditure.

Sweden’s neighbours fared significantly better in keeping excess death rates down, with Denmark logging just 32 excess deaths per 100,000, while Norway logged “one fewer death per 100,000 than expected”, said the paper. 

And while Sweden’s excess death rate may look “flattering relative to the majority of EU countries”, the WHO report is unlikely to settle many arguments on which countries took the best approach to the pandemic, said François Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, in The Guardian

This is because excess deaths are “difficult to measure precisely”, he wrote, adding that the data “paints a complex picture supporting no single straightforward narrative”. 

A single figure for each country does not “capture the full complexity of vastly different socioeconomic situations and two years of inconsistent policies”. But the “stringency of mitigation measures” does not appear to be a “strong predictor of excess deaths”. 

Overall, the WHO report points to the importance of “reducing inequality, improving health and providing a robust social and healthcare system offering the best pandemic preparedness”, Balloux added, which may also explain Sweden’s relative success.

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