Brussels – The World Health Organization has been generous with its praise throughout this pandemic. China, Singapore and Ireland have all received plaudits for their handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Now that a new turning point is in sight, with the infection’s spread slowing and draconian lockdown measures being gradually lifted, the WHO is promoting the Swedish way of doing things. "Sweden represents a future model. … If we wish to get back to a society in which we don’t have lockdowns,” the WHO’s Mike Ryan said, praising the way Swedes are trusted to "self-regulate.”
Sweden’s hands-off approach to lockdown has certainly been different to that of other countries, from France and Italy to the United States and China. Large public gatherings are banned, but restaurants, bars and schools have stayed open, and social distancing is encouraged rather than enforced by police.
Trust in the public is high, and so is the public’s trust in the strategy. Swedes seem happy with the global attention. "Many countries are starting to come around to the Swedish way,” Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist, told USA Today.
But like so many stories of national exceptionalism in this crisis — the United Kingdom at one point was convinced it could avoid strict closures, painting them as unscientific, before eventually doing a U-turn — this one is debatable and premature.
U.S. President Donald Trump, no doubt annoyed at stories in the American media heaping praise on the Swedes, tweeted one obvious riposte last week, noting the high price that Swedes have had to pay in terms of COVID-19 fatalities. Sweden’s 2,586 deaths compare poorly with Denmark’s 452 and Norway’s 207. Taking population into account, Sweden has suffered more deaths per million people than the U.S. (although deaths aren't always counted in the same way).
When looking at all-cause mortality — which is probably a better gauge of the real level of coronavirus deaths — Sweden has been hit with "very high” excess deaths since the start of the year, according to the European body monitoring these statistics. In Denmark, they’ve been "low.”
The counterargument is that Sweden has accepted more deaths in exchange for trying to achieve group immunity more quickly and protecting its economy from lasting collapse. Several big countries in Europe with stricter lockdowns have suffered more excess deaths and greater economic damage than Sweden while being more aggressive about halting infections. But they felt they had no other way to relieve their overrun hospitals, a problem that Sweden doesn’t have.
We don’t know what other nations might have gone through if they’d followed the Swedish model — France estimates its own lockdown saved 60,000 lives. We also don’t know how much immunity has been acquired by the Swedes. An official report estimating that a third of Stockholm’s population would develop antibodies to the virus by May 1 was withdrawn after an error.
We do know that Sweden’s COVID-19 journey hasn’t been exceptional. Like other countries, it has experienced a surge in deaths in care homes, where about one in three virus deaths are estimated to have taken place. Visiting relatives and staff are expected to "self-regulate” but, according to reports, they don’t always do so. The Swedes have also had a lack of systematic testing and equipment shortages.
Things might have been even worse without the Swedes’ demographic and cultural defenses. This is a population that does social distancing already in many ways. More than half of the country lives in single-person households, working from home is common and access to fast broadband is everywhere.
But Swedes are becoming increasingly unconcerned about keeping their distance as time goes on, as images of packed restaurants indicate. Public health officials have warned about their behavior. In Stockholm they’ve threatened to shut bars and restaurants.
At the same time, migrant workers in the country are being infected disproportionately, according to a recent national survey. The hyper-individualist expectation to "self-regulate” looks too complacent for immigrant communities who lack access to information.
Sweden may very well turn out to be a relative winner of sorts, especially economically. It will probably experience a shorter and less severe slowdown than its European neighbors, says Torbjorn Isaksson, an analyst at Nordea Bank. That will cheer the lockdown critics such as Swedish industrialist Jacob Wallenberg, who in March warned of the long-term damage of putting economies in deep freeze.
Whether that’s much of a win for an economy where trade accounts for 89 percent of GDP is doubtful. Leapfrogging European Union trading partners in a single market that’s been paralyzed by the virus scare can’t be that meaningful. And it probably won’t be fondly remembered.
Given that we haven’t reached the end of this pandemic, more circumspection might be in order. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said: "Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.”
As we approach a turning point in the crisis, it’s tempting to look back and single out winners as the model to follow. But we don’t know what’s going to happen next. None of us has lived through it yet. And that includes Sweden.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels.
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