Hysteria at Sweden's successful COVID strategy is irresponsible, and silly

The terribly inconvenient truth is that Sweden has not suffered relative to most by adopting the kind of "lax" policies that many European countries, without daring to admit it, are now starting to emulate. We need to drop the anti-Swedish hysteria, and the ridiculous national stereotypes about COVID-19 while we're at it

Public Enemy No1: Anders Tegnell, Sweden's Chief Epidemiologist
the commentator
On 14 April 2020 09:19

Who wants to believe that we trashed our economies, cancelled cancer treatments and testing for high risk patients, and drastically raised the risk of mental health problems for millions of our citizens due to "lockdown" policies that were much less effective than our governments will, once the data is in, realistically be able to claim?

Sweden has found itself at the centre of just such a storm. It is a myth that Sweden has had no lockdown policies whatsoever, but the fact is that its strategy of asking citizens to show common sense in voluntarily social distancing, and keeping open the schools, and even the bars and restaurants, makes the country an outlier, especially in Europe.

Given that its death rates per million of the population (see below) are well below many, though not all, European countries the emotional temperature has shot through the roof. A once popular European nation is being treated in some quarters as the new Public Enemy Number 1; a pariah even.

To quote one example among many, an op-ed in the Washington Post -- a usually sensible and cool headed newspaper -- concluded an angry little piece of writing with the extraordinary exclamation that: "Time will tell, but we fear that Sweden has picked the worst possible time to experiment with national chauvinism." For goodness sake!

But for many, it's too much to be bear, or even to contemplate. This also applies to some of those scientists who have staked their reputations on the lockdowns working. You wouldn't know it from the way many media outlets, especially in Britain and the United States, have been reporting it, but there is massive debate among epidemiologists about whether lockdowns have had much effect, and even more about what kind of lockdowns, or which aspects of them, have been the most useful.

For, what's in a word? A lot if that word is "lockdown". In Denmark, the rules limit gatherings to 10 people. In Britain, you could have got yourself arrested over the Easter weekend for sitting alone on a park bench. Some countries enforce the wearing of face masks. Others don't. In some you can go out for as long as you like to take your exercise. In others, there's a 30 minute limit. And so on and so forth.

It could well be the case that some of these measure were vital to stopping the spread of the disease, while others had very little effect. 

This matters for a lot of reasons, but it is now especially important as everyone starts to move towards exiting the "lockdowns". Austria began today, by opening up small stores. Schools are to follow. Bars and restaurants may be back in business this time next month. Denmark, Norway, the Czech Republic, and even Spain, are starting to move in the same direction, all of them, sensibly enough, ready to call a halt if the infection numbers start to rise again.

They wouldn't be doing this if they thought they were risking the lives of their citizens. Which brings us back to Sweden.

The terribly inconvenient truth is that Sweden has not suffered relative to most by adopting the kind of policies that many European countries, without daring to admit it, are now starting to emulate.

Sweden has had a higher death rate per million, (95), than Denmark (49), and Norway (25), but it has had a much lower death rate than the Netherlands (165), another northern European nation. If the Swedish model had been as irresponsible as the more hysterical pundits have claimed, it should have been ravaged by the disease. But it hasn't been. Its death rate per million is far below Belgium, (359) another country with a similar sized population, and well below Britain at (167) deaths per million of the population.

The attempts to explain Sweden away have sometimes got quite out of control. One common tactic has been to ignore the relative death rates all across Europe and only compare the Swedes with Denmark and Norway, presumably because they all descended from the Vikings?!? The mind boggles.

We know that geographical proximity, and even shared cultural and linguistic practices are no reliable guide to what is really going on. Despite widespread national stereotyping about the "touchy feely" southern Europeans having been hit hard by the disease because of their alleged penchant for hugging and kissing each other all the time, just look at the difference in the death rates between Spain and neighbouring Portugal, both of which have had very tight lockdowns.

In Portugal the death rate per million is 52 compared to a whopping 386 in Spain.

But, as we do contemplate easing our lockdowns, it isn't just Sweden that raises questions about their effectiveness. It would appear that there is a lead time of at least 3-4 weeks between contracting the disease, and sadly, dying from it. But in Britain and many other countries, the rates of increase in the death rates were already slowing markedly before the lockdowns could have been the cause.

Look at the graphs, note the slowdowns in the rates of increase in daily deaths, and then look at when the lockdowns went into effect. Britain provides a perfect illustration. Look at the data here. In some countries it is going to be ambiguous, partly because the lockdowns happened gradually.

But that is the bigger point we're making in this editorial. Ambiguity, lack of certainty, and an evolving discussion among the epidemiologists, all suggests that we need to show both humility, and a preparedness to change course when the evidence suggests we should.

Sticking doggedly to lockdowns -- which, to repeat, mean many different things in many different countries -- and unleashing fury against Sweden because it is acquiring the status of the patient who, so to speak, refused to die, is about as stupid and self-defeating a stance as we could adopt.

None of this means that Sweden's was exactly the right approach for every country, and its death toll will certainly continue to rise. Above all, we need to sift the evidence, and keep an open mind.

In the meantime, we need to get over ourselves, drop the hysteria, give Sweden a break, and cautiously begin the process of considering unwinding lockdown policies that may not always, and in all forms, have been all that they have been cracked up to be.

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