Do We Need to Talk about Sweden?

A friend of mine has asked why nobody is talking about Sweden, “which seems to be doing so well.” That made me go back and look at Sweden and also look at some of the articles about Sweden, because I thought, by and large, that a lot more ink had been spilled on Sweden than on its Scandi neighbors. It’s interesting how the writing has evolved over time, and how early predictions were wrong. Here, for example, is a Conversation article from the beginning of April. The author stresses how much about the course of the pandemic was still unknown, but predictions that Sweden and its fellow Scandinavian countries would end up facing similar cumulative case and death statistics (more widely distributed in the other countries, but still the same in the end) ended up not to be the case. As of October, Sweden had a cumulative death rate over five times that of Denmark, its worst-performing neighbor, and around ten times that of Finland and Norway:

All three of Sweden’s neighbors instituted far more stringent restrictions on people and closed down businesses, while Sweden, at least according to popular lore, remained open. But is that really the case? Certainly, Sweden sent kids back to school (at least those below the age of 16) and kept businesses open. But according to this July article by the BBC, the country did actually institute a number of measures, banning gatherings of over 50 people, making students over the age of 16 attend online rather than in person, and issuing social distancing guidelines that most people followed.

And now, it seems, the policy of having a less restrictive plan and sticking to it might be paying off to a certain extent. If we look at daily death figures for the last 3 months, Sweden’s numbers are approaching the low Finnish and Norwegian figures, while Denmark, touted at the end of May as the “first to close, first to reopen,” is experiencing a significant increase. Before we read too much into these trends, we might want to look at the trend in case numbers, which tend to lag deaths by a few weeks. Here, the “lessons” we can learn are less clear. Denmark still leads Sweden, but seems to be on a downward trend. Sweden is on a gradual upward trend, and Finland and Norway are far below the two leaders, but experiencing sharper increases:


It’s impossible to say what all this will mean as we move into the autumn, when Scandinavian weather pretty much dictates that any socializing will take place indoors. So, to answer my friend’s question, if there has been a dearth of stories about Sweden in the US news right now, it’s probably because there’s not much we can say with any certainty.

It is possible to make some comparisons to the US and the UK, however. I’ve been focusing on comparing apples to apples. Four countries with many similarities that responded differently to COVID-19. What happens when we add the US and the UK to the charts?

The first thing to notice is the grouping. There is such a wide gap between the US/UK/Sweden at the top and Denmark/Finland/Norway at the bottom that I had no trouble inserting the table with the exact numbers into the chart without obscuring the lines. In cumulative death statistics, the US passed a milestone on September 30, when it passed the UK in per capita deaths. But all three countries are within shouting distance of one another, while all three of Sweden’s neighbors are showing very few new deaths, although Denmark still has twice the cumulative deaths of Finland and Norway.

When I starting writing this, I assumed, like most people, that even though Sweden had higher death numbers than its neighbors, it had to do better on the economy, or at least on jobs. The problem with making assumptions based on feelings, as many people have done during the pandemic, is that they tend to be wrong. According to Trading Economics, the US GDP, after a fairly steady growth rate of roughly 4% a year for the preceding decade, experienced about a 4% loss in the first three quarters of 2020. The UK, by contrast, had the kinds of erratic GDP numbers one can expect with austerity and Brexit, with a figure more in the order of 1.5% a year during the same time period. Since COVID, the UK economy has shrunk close to 10%. Sweden fell between the two, with a decrease of 7.6% in the same time period. But Denmark, Finland, and Norway all experienced far less contraction than Sweden, with Denmark at 4%, Norway at 4.8%, and Finland at 5.8%. Now all four of these countries have significantly smaller economies that the US or the UK, and they are dependent on the rest of the world for that growth or shrinkage, so without going into a whole lot of analysis, it’s hard to draw real conclusions from these numbers. But I think it’s important to note that Sweden’s approach didn’t seem to shield it from economic contraction, or even mitigate the results.

The other figure people discuss is unemployment. Surely, if Sweden kept most things open, this figure must be better for them? Interestingly, they had a fairly high unemployment statistic before the pandemic, 6 percent compared to the US’s 3.6%. But it was pretty close to their Scandinavian neighbors’ statistics: Finland had an identical 6% and Norway had 5.2%. Only Denmark was down in the US range, with 3.7%. Where are they now? The US has had the highest percentage increase in unemployment, more than doubling to 7.9%. But Sweden experienced a 50% increase to 8.8%, the highest rate of the bunch. Finland was also fairly high, at 7.7%. But the UK, Norway, and Denmark, while they all experienced an increase in unemployment, saw a much less severe jump. In the UK, where the government instituted a furlough scheme that rewarded employers who guaranteed their employees’ jobs, unemployment increased only slightly, from 3.8% to 4.1%.

Again, this is “back of the envelope” analysis, and a lot more figures would have to be looked at, and a lot more time will have to elapse before we can say anything with certainty about the effects of the pandemic on the global economy. But I think it’s fairly clear that while Sweden’s economy might not have done significantly worse than anyone else, it also didn’t do significantly better. Perhaps the reason people aren’t talking about Sweden is that there’s nothing much to say. Maybe in five years, we can perform all the analysis and say what did and didn’t work, but right now, it doesn’t look like Sweden is the grand success some people think it is, but they also haven’t fared as poorly, in terms of deaths or cases, as the US and the UK have done. There is still a lot we don’t know about this disease, but this article in the Atlantic might provide a clue. The article suggests that very few people actually spread the disease, but those who do tend to spread to many people. This makes a lot of what we’ve done by focusing on the average rate of transmission somewhat ineffective. It also shows a way forward, mostly what we already knew. It’s probably not that dangerous to open things up if we are more vigilant about wearing masks and avoiding large (especially indoor) crowds, and if our contact tracing and testing improves.

And although I know my friend won’t particularly like this part of the message, if we’re looking for role models for handling the pandemic, we probably have to look to Eastern Asia rather than Sweden. Regardless of conditions in China that may have led to the pandemic, and China’s failure to notify the rest of the world, they got a handle on it much more quickly than most of the Western World did. Maybe we should stop focusing so much on blame and start focusing on what we can learn. There will be time for blame later on, and there will be plenty to go around.

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