The Irish Times view on coronavirus strategies: Sweden’s experiment is risky
If Sweden’s approach is right, the rewards are big, but the cost of getting it wrong is bigger still
A picture taken earlier this month shows people keeping social distances at a shopping centre in Stockholm. Photograph: Henrik Montgomery/ TT news agency/ AFP via Getty Images
On paper, Sweden’s approach to the coronavirus crisis seems far more logical than that of its European neighbours. Whereas the rest of the world either suppressed the virus before it spread (South Korea, New Zealand) or failed to contain it and imposed draconian lockdowns in a desperate attempt to bring it under control (France, Ireland), Sweden went its own way and did neither of these things.
Instead it opted for a controlled spread of the disease, avoiding an economically ruinous and unsustainable lockdown in favour of a more liberal regime while protecting those – the old and the vulnerable – who account for the vast majority of severe cases of Covid-19. To opponents of lockdowns, Sweden became a cause celebre. For others, it behaved recklessly.
Sweden has paid a heavy price. Its death toll of 3,743, in a population of 10 million, compares with a total of just over 1,000 for Denmark, Norway and Finland combined
The country’s approach is often misconstrued. Life has not continued as normal there. While schools, restaurants, cafés and shops have mostly remained open, people have been encouraged to work from home, traffic levels have fallen and those who do go out have abided by public health advice to keep at a distance from one another. Schools for over-16s and universities are closed and large gatherings are banned.
Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist, believes we are going to have to live with Covid-19 for a long time. Shutting down all social and economic life every time the virus resurges is not an option, the Swedes argue; far better to build up a certain level of immunity in the population while allowing the economy to function and not depriving children of their schooling. The approach has revealed serious flaws, however. Whereas Tegnell has estimated that 40 per cent of people in Stockholm would be immune by the end of May, the results of a serological study published on Tuesday show that as of last week only 9 per cent of the capital’s residents had had the disease.
The strategy assumed that the most vulnerable would be shielded. Yet half of Sweden’s coronavirus death have occurred in care homes. Shielding assumes that healthy and vulnerable people don’t interact. In Sweden, as in many other countries, elderly care relies on an underpaid, casualised work force. Many staff work in several locations and do not receive paid sick leave.
Overall, Sweden has paid a heavy price. Its death toll of 3,743, in a population of 10 million, compares with a total of just over 1,000 for Denmark, Norway and Finland combined (a population of more than 16.5 million). The European Commission forecasts that Sweden, Denmark and Finland’s economies will all contract by around 6 per cent this year. At this early stage in the pandemic, and with so many gaps in our knowledge about Covid-19, it’s too early to cast definitive judgment on Sweden’s experiment. The rewards for success are big. But the cost of getting it wrong is bigger still.