By Astrid Popovici
Visit Stockholm at any time in the past few months, and you’d be greeted with a bustling city. You’d see people dining at restaurants, exercising in gyms, and buying items from local shops, all without masks. While dozens of nations locked down their borders and enacted orders requiring people to stay at home, Sweden remained relatively open.
Sweden’s government has issued recommendations encouraging people to wash their hands, maintain social distancing where possible, and avoid non-essential travel. They’ve also banned gatherings of more than 50 people. In spring Sweden closed schools for over-16s and universities, but kept primary and secondary schools open. For the most part, Sweden has relied on people to change their behavior voluntarily rather than requiring them to stay home. Altogether, Sweden has one of the most relaxed coronavirus policies in the world.
Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has emphasized a more balanced approach to Sweden’s public health, in which “people should be able to keep a reasonably normal life.” Swedish health authorities have repeatedly referred to the pandemic as “a marathon, not a sprint.” Says Tegnell, “It’s a big mistake to sit down and say ‘we should just wait for a vaccine’. It will take much longer than we think. And in the end, we don’t know how good a vaccine it will be. It’s another reason to have a sustainable policy in place.”
At 56 deaths per 100,000 people, Sweden has a significantly higher mortality rate than Norway (5), Denmark (11), or Germany (11). However, Sweden’s death rate per 100,000 is lower than those of Spain (61), Britain (69), and Belgium (86), all of which imposed strict lockdowns. The United States has a death rate of 46 per 100,000 people; New York, 168; and California, 23.
Tegnell has stood by Sweden’s strategy, saying on July 23 that it “has served us very well.” However, he regrets Sweden’s poor handling of nursing homes, which resulted in a high death rate for the elderly people living in them. Overall, 50% of Sweden’s coronavirus deaths have come from elderly care facilities. Helena Nordenstedt, a Swedish clinical epidemiologist, noted that “If you take care homes out of the equation, things actually look much brighter.”
Sweden’s Covid-related deaths and hospitalizations per day both peaked in mid-April, and have been falling ever since. Confirmed cases per day peaked in late June.
Commenting on the recent drop in cases, Tegnell said “We have quite a quick positive development of the pandemic in Sweden – which shouldn’t be taken as a reason that we can live as normal again. This depends on us continuing to do social distancing and other measures in a good way.”
Sweden’s strategy also helped it to weather the economic damage caused by the virus and lockdowns. A recent Capital Economy report called Sweden’s “the best of a bad bunch in Europe.”
Ultimately, it’s too soon to see the full effects—both on public health and on the economy—of Sweden’s decision not to lock down. But as a clear global outlier in its Covid-19 response, Sweden can serve as a useful data point for other countries.