A Lesson from Sweden on How Not to Respond to COVID-19

The Swedish government didn’t enforce social distancing. It’s now paying the price—in lives and in GDP.

In late March, when every other European country was in a lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Sweden remained the outlier. Instead of imposing strict shelter-in-place orders, officials decided that Swedes could be relied upon to follow sanitation guidelines themselves. Restaurants, shops, and recreational spots stayed open.

After all, Sweden has an excellent national health care system that ranks third in the world (the U.S. clocks in at a dismal 44). And with the Swedes’ low levels of obesity and diabetes, their generally good health and ample supply of hospital beds offer far better odds against COVID-19.

But even with these advantages, many Swedes did not stay at home. Sweden’s experiment in waging a lax battle against COVID-19 cost the country dearly. As of May 19, Sweden had more coronavirus deaths per capita than any other country in Europe, according to the Financial Times. Sweden’s death rate soared well above the neighboring Scandinavian countries that mandated their people stay at home: While Sweden has more than 3,300 excess deaths—a figure calculated comparing the number of deaths during the same time frame last year—Denmark had 300, while Norway and Finland had fewer than 100 each, according to the New York Times. Iceland’s death toll after its lockdown has been an impressive 11 times lower than the current figures in Sweden. These numbers make it clear: Sweden’s risky bet on keeping their economy open—placing its faith on the concept of herd immunity—wasn’t worth the hand.

Ironically, Sweden has found cheerleaders among the same Republicans and conservatives that have long vilified its socialized health care, progressive tax system, and liberal social policies. Even still, conservatives continue to hail the leftist country as a bastion of freedom and individual liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-lockdown protestors rally have chanted, “Be more like Sweden!”

But for the steep cost in human lives, did Sweden at least save its economy? Nope. Its Central Bank projects a GDP downturn of 10 percent, about the same rate as its European counterparts.

That’s partly because the Swedish people were not as irresponsible as their government. Many followed social distancing—especially older people, who stayed home voluntarily following the recommendations of the World Health Organization. But it wasn’t enough. Now, the sobering, irrefutable truth of 3,300 excess deaths and a declining GDP has Sweden rethinking its policies.

So, what does this tell us? First, we should heed the cautionary advice that medical schools give to their students: Half of what you will learn here will be dead wrong in five years.

At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the CDC was telling us not to wear masks. Then, it told us that masks are critical to combat the virus. A month ago, the doctors told us to wear gloves. Now, it’s telling us gloves are useless. Two months ago, it told us children were immune. Now, it appears that hundreds of children are facing a new, COVID-19 related infection.

Frankly, there’s a lot of information out there that merits a healthy dose of skepticism. That’s not because of any conspiracies; it’s because this is a new disease and the international medical community simply has not had enough time to learn enough about it. All of us, in turn, have to be extremely careful.

Of course, it doesn’t help that GOP-led states are being less than forthright about their coronavirus infection and death data. As all 50 states begin to reopen, several under the control of Republican governors are “editing ” the numbers that are released a publicity ploy to cover the fact that there are still so many citizens dying.

Florida’s Department of Health stopped the State Medical Examiners from publishing excess death counts after reported figures were nearly 10 percent higher than what the Health Department originally claimed. The only reliable data comes from actually counting the dead bodies. By this measure, there have been more than double the excess deaths in Florida than have been reported, according to a Harvard study.

So, you might logically ask, should we really be reopening? Absolutely—under modified, careful, and controlled circumstances. Those in the most at-risk categories—i.e. people over the age of 65 or who have an underlining health condition—should obviously stay home. But don’t be convinced that it will help the economy much. Sweden has shown us that we can’t let everyone do what they want and be convinced that they will do the right thing—or that our healthcare system can handle the consequences. The stake in human lives is too great.

During a pandemic, society’s safety should not be decided by its people on a voluntary basis. A standard of what’s best for the greater good must prevail. More often than not, the right thing is not always the easiest. Let’s learn the right lesson from Sweden’s human sacrifice of thousands of its elderly people and set some boundaries for our cities to follow.

The biggest dangers involve indoor groupings and socialization. To mitigate exposure risks, business operations will need to be adjusted. State governments and major cities should allow restaurants and bars extend their patios beyond the curb, taking over sidewalks and streets and have outdoor tables for the summer, keeping people six feet apart, but limit the number of customers inside stores and banks at one time. At the same time, they should open parks, tennis courts, and golf courses with mandated and judicious social distancing. Also, coastline states can open the beaches with targeted social distancing, but make sure police are quick to respond to transgressions, with officers patrolling heavily and ready to shut the beaches down again. Each situation, each population, each town should be treated differently. As the saying goes, one size does not fit all.

Until we have a vaccine, effective therapies, widespread testing, and contact tracing, this pandemic isn’t going away. A second wave is “inevitable,” according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases..

With the summer approaching and everyone wanting to enjoy the glorious weather, as we saw this past weekend, the United States cannot be lulled into complacency. Otherwise, we will suffer the same excess death toll levels as Sweden.

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Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood , formerly on the staff of the New York Times, has written for New York Magazine, the New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, the Atlantic, and the Washington Monthly.