Many people have been looking to Sweden as an example of an enlightened approach to the pandemic. That’s because the Swedish government did not close restaurants or bars and allowed younger children to keep attending school. There was no recommendation to wear face masks in public. That was last spring and summer. Everything has changed this fall. The Swedish model has been abandoned by Sweden itself.
Last Summer’s Swedish Model:
Dr. Anders Tegnell is Sweden’s state epidemiologist. He is considered the intellectual author of the Swedish model. Compared to its Nordic neighbors, Norway and Finland, Sweden adopted a less aggressive approach against COVID-19. Although Dr. Tegnell never claimed he was trying to achieve so-called herd immunity, many of his advocates believed that was the goal of the Swedish model.
Last summer Dr. Tegnell reassured skeptics that Sweden would likely achieve a greater degree of immunity than neighboring countries. He predicted that this process would lead to protection against a second wave in the fall and winter. He told the Financial Times (May 8, 2020) that:
“In the autumn there will be a second wave. Sweden will have a high level of immunity and the number of cases will probably be quite low. But Finland will have a very low level of immunity. Will Finland have to go into a complete lockdown again?”
Sweden’s state epidemiologist admitted to the Financial Times that:
“…it would take about one to two years to know whose strategy had worked best and at what cost to society. He stressed that Sweden’s approach was to look at the ‘wide public health matter’ in which an important consideration was that ‘people should be able to keep a reasonably normal life.’”
What Happened to the Swedish Model?
Sweden has reversed course this fall. That’s because new cases of COVID-19 are soaring. Norway has one fourth as many cases per capita and Finland has one tenth. Hospitalizations in Sweden are increasing faster than in most other European countries. Dr. Tegnell admits that the country is now experiencing a second wave.
The Swedish Prime Minister has limited public gatherings to no more than eight people. He told his countrymen:
“Don’t go to the gym, don’t go the library, don’t have dinner out, don’t have parties — cancel! It’s going to get worse.”
Swedish public health authorities still don’t think people need to wear face masks in public. This has created tremendous controversy within the country.
The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences awards Nobel prizes. A report by experts for the Academy now suggests that face masks and good ventilation are important measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Staffan Normak is a professor of microbiology and is chairman of the Academy’s expert group. His response to the country’s decision on November 19th not to recommend face masks was unequivocal:
“In order to reduce transmission quickly, we should use all tools at our disposal, and that includes face masks and improved ventilation.”
Americans and the Swedish Model:
Many people in the US believed in the Swedish model. The relaxed response to the pandemic fit with their perspective on the coronavirus. They believed that herd immunity was possible, despite a lack of evidence.
Face masks were perceived as a nuisance and not very effective. The idea of restricting public gatherings such as weddings, funerals or church services was too painful. The Swedish model offered an alternative. Here are some thoughts from commenters on this website:
Jim says he believes that the original Swedish model is working:
“The area under each curve is proportional to the TOTAL number of cases per 100,000 people to date. The area under Sweden is much smaller than under the U.S. And their economy was not shut down and impacted as in the U.S.
“The current rise in cases in Sweden is not any more severe than in other countries, and the rise in Sweden is not due to their keeping the country open in the past. It is due to something else, and Swedish officials are reacting appropriately. They will figure it out.”
Jim is right that Sweden’s rise in cases is nowhere near as high as those in the United States. Then again, the US leads the world in cases and deaths. Swedish officials are now instituting much more stringent measures, banning public gatherings beyond eight people. The prime minister is encouraging people to avoid going to restaurants. Bloomberg Economics reports (Nov. 18, 2020) that:
“Sweden’s government has acknowledged that the latest Covid-19 flare-up means the economy will be weaker over the coming months than previously thought.”
Larae adds this about the Swedish model:
“Their death rate is lower than ours, and is lower than the countries that had severe lockdowns. No way that is a failure.”
True and true! The fact that Sweden’s death rate is lower than ours and lower than countries such as Brazil, Mexico, the UK and Italy is not giving their leaders any satisfaction. As of November the number of deaths in Sweden was 6,321. The number of deaths in Denmark was 770. Finland has recorded 373 coronavirus-related deaths and Norway 299 deaths. Deaths in the US now exceed 250,000.
Such number are, of course, meaningless unless one does per capita calculations. We will let you figure this out given these statistics:
The Population in Nordic Countries:
- Sweden………… 10.3 million
- Denmark……….. 5.8 million
- Finland………….. 5.5 million
- Norway…………. 5.3 million
Although Sweden has almost twice the population of the other countries, it has a much more than double the death rate from COVID-19.
Bill suggests that the Swedish model is more flexible than other European countries:
“The early character of the Swedish model was that there was little change in normal life. They were willing to tolerate a certain spread of the disease and death rates compared to other countries.
“Now, it seems, the situation is changing, and Sweden is responding differently. I would presume in a measured way, in coherence with their previous strategy. If this is right, the Swedish attitude appears willing to tolerate the disease and its consequences more than many others are willing. Has that attitude changed? It is not clear that anything presented in your first article about Sweden indicates otherwise.”
Here is a link to our first article on Sweden’s changing response to COVID-19.
We would have to say that when hospitalizations started rising faster than many other European countries and death rates became dramatically higher than its Nordic neighbors, the Swedish model has been modified. Today, Sweden’s Prime Minister is telling people to cancel their social plans. Sweden still does not believe in a total lockdown but the country has reversed its former laissez-faire policy.