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Understanding Sweden's approach to COVID-19

This is in response to the column by Froma Harrop regarding Sweden’s experience with the novel coronavirus, which omits important information.

As readers may recall, the essential feature of the Swedish approach is that the Swedes have not locked down, masked or social distanced as strategies for dealing with the virus. They have been “open for business as usual.” As a result, they have continued to enjoy a vibrant economic, social and cultural life.

Harrop’s column is critical of the Swedish approach, which is typical of mainstream media, but is missing one critical fact that is necessary for a complete and unbiased account and which is typically not reported. Namely, the Swedes have almost completely stopped dying from the virus. Following the peak in mid-April, daily deaths have steadily tumbled, declining to the single digits; the latest seven-day moving average of deaths is one per day, as shown on Worldometer. The trend line has been steady and persistent, without jarring anomalies. As in the United States, deaths that have occurred have been concentrated among the elderly with major comorbidities.

Harrop says that Swedish deaths from the virus are greater than those of the U.S. This is inaccurate. The cumulative Swedish death rate, at 577 per million, is nearly identical to that of the U.S., at 579 per million, but their death total is nearly static, whereas the U.S. total grows every day, a fact conveniently omitted by Harrop. The COVID-19 death rate for Sweden is much higher than those of Sweden’s neighbors that early implemented a lockdown approach: Denmark (173 deaths per million), Finland (64 deaths per million) and Norway (49 deaths per million), but see below for further discussion.

The Swedes now admit that they were derelict in taking care of older residents in institutional settings, and this contributed to a high mortality total. In fact, as many as 70% of the COVID-related deaths in Sweden may have occurred in these settings, primarily in Stockholm, according to Charlotta Stern of the Sociology Department of Stockholm University and Daniel B. Klein of George Mason University. That the Swedes failed in this aspect of their response to the virus does not, however, invalidate their overall approach. In fact, quite the opposite: If the unnecessary deaths of the elderly are subtracted from the total for Sweden, the differential between the mortality figures for Sweden versus its Scandinavian neighbors shrinks drastically, resulting in a more accurate depiction of the Swedish approach.

So, let’s try a little thought experiment, comparing Sweden to the U.S.: On the one hand we have the Swedish experience, with hardly any additional deaths going forward, with the population going about their daily activities in schools, businesses and cultural institutions. On the other we have the U.S. experience, marked by massive economic, social and cultural damage, 1,000 deaths per day going forward and no end in sight. Would Americans choose to trade places with the Swedes? The answer is obvious — in a heartbeat, “yes, yes, yes!”

A complete lockdown strategy at the beginning of the pandemic might have been the way to go for the US, but this is not the direction this country is headed, so there’s no point in positing the approach of Sweden’s Scandinavian neighbors as something available to the U.S. It’s just not culturally or politically feasible.

One can certainly disagree about the Swedish experience and its relevance to the U.S. But the notion that one can write intelligently about that experience without noting that people in Sweden have almost completely stopped dying of this disease is absurd. No wonder why the media is held in such low esteem. It is drenched in intellectual dishonesty.

Bob Wetmore lives in Ashland.