Back in March, when Covid-19 began to spread significantly in Europe, and most countries instituted national lockdowns, Sweden bucked the trend. Aside from banning gatherings of more than fifty people, closing schools for students over the age of sixteen, and barring entry from most countries outside the European Union, the Swedish government imposed no new restrictions on people or businesses. Bars and restaurants remained open, public transportation remained available to everyone, and people remained free to travel, socialize, and go to work.1
“They are leading us to catastrophe,” immunology researcher Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér said at the time.2 People across the world watched and waited for the huge, crippling outbreak that was sure to follow.3 As the number of cases rose, a Swedish lockdown seemed inevitable. But neither a crippling outbreak nor a lockdown ever happened. The daily rate of new cases climbed into the mid-seven hundreds by the start of April, then stayed flat.4
I visited Sweden at the end of September to sample life there for myself. Although I was aware that Sweden had had no lockdown, I didn’t realize how little impact Covid-19 had had on Swedish life. Stockholm was a hub of thriving activity. Trains were filled to the brim with passengers—with not a mask in sight.5 Restaurants overflowed with customers. Groups of people filled the streets with laughter and jollity. All around me, I could hear the voices of people from across Europe who had come to Sweden to escape the dystopian nightmares of their own countries and live normally again, if only for a while.
My experience there belied a prevailing claim about Sweden’s response to Covid-19—namely, that Swedish people are so sensible that they didn’t need to be told to lock down; they did it themselves. To quote one commentator, their strategy “worked because the Swedes are a serious, sensible, law-abiding lot, who believe in individual responsibility and can be trusted to behave themselves.”6 However, if you visit Stockholm, or even some of the smaller towns I visited on my trip such as Sigtuna, Märsta, Täby, and Saltsjöbaden, you will see people acting very differently than those in countries that imposed top-down restrictions. I was amazed to see people living as if nothing had changed, piling onto trains and buses and filling busy shops, malls, and restaurants. There were hardly any face coverings to be seen anywhere, and reminders to socially distance were few and far between.
Another common claim I had heard about Covid-19 in Sweden is that it did have a disproportionately large outbreak compared to other countries. Although Sweden did experience a larger outbreak than its immediate neighbors—Norway, Finland, and Denmark—its outbreak has, so far, been smaller than those in several other European countries that implemented strict lockdowns. Sweden’s reported per capita rate of deaths with Covid-19 is currently 579 per million, the fourteenth highest globally (keep in mind that many large dictatorial or underdeveloped countries such as China and Pakistan likely had much higher death rates than reported). This death rate is the fifth highest in Europe, behind Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy, all of which implemented strict lockdowns.7 But these figures distort the truth by reporting the number of people who died with Covid-19, not those who died because of Covid-19. Different countries also count death rates in different ways, which makes international comparisons challenging as well.
Further, all of the countries that implemented strict mandatory lockdowns have since reported significant additional spikes in cases. This is due in part to the greater availability of testing, but some countries, such as France, have seen an increase in daily deaths with Covid-19 as well, whereas others have not. Sweden’s daily new case rate is also currently rising, likely in part due to increased testing as well. Last week, the daily new case rate returned to the mid-seven hundreds, where it was in April (the highest rate recorded was 1,698 new cases during one day in late June). But consider that the UK’s reported daily case rate is now more than fifteen thousand on some days, which is more than double the country’s highest figure during its initial outbreak.8 In both countries, increased testing explains at least some of the uptick. But the fact that Sweden had a somewhat larger outbreak between March and June may explain why it’s now faring better than a handful of countries that imposed onerous lockdowns: It’s possible that more Swedes now have the relevant antibodies, leaving the country less at risk of a second large outbreak and limiting the virus’s ability to infect new hosts.
Nonetheless, the reported death rate in Sweden has remained flat, not rising above six deaths with Covid-19 in a single day since July and typically hovering between zero and two. The death rate flattened in large part because nursing homes—where the most vulnerable people live—improved their processes for shielding at-risk residents and getting those infected to hospitals.9
At the start of the pandemic, countries rationalized lockdowns on the grounds that they could prevent health-care systems from being overloaded by a sudden spike. In a few large, dense, urban areas such as London and New York, this may have been a genuine risk that could have resulted in significant loss of life. But it was never a significant risk in Sweden or other less densely populated places. Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, clearly recognized that locking Sweden down would have been excessive when he likened it to “using a hammer to kill a fly.”10
That’s true. Lockdowns have been extremely damaging to human life. They’ve had disastrous effects on people’s well-being, depriving them of social contact, access to the outdoors, emotional support from friends and family, and myriad other activities that human beings require in order to live fully. The negative impact that lockdowns have had on mental health is significant. Governments ought to take that impact just as seriously as the threat that the virus itself poses when considering a lockdown, and it’s clear that most have not.
For example, a report by Oxford University researchers concluded that the economic fallout from the lockdowns in the United States and Europe could lead to double the suicide rate seen in the 2009 recession.11 Suicides have increased across the world, in countries as culturally diverse as the UK, Japan, and Malawi.12 And this is but a meager indicator of the widespread suffering that lockdowns have caused.
Many dismiss the economic impacts of lockdowns as secondary to the impact that the virus has had on human life, but this ignores the fact that you cannot divorce the economy from human life. The long-term human cost of this economic damage will be enormous. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed globally, and businesses are collapsing left, right, and center. In the long run, this will cause poverty to snowball. The absurd rise in government borrowing to “safeguard” national economies during the crisis will lead to further recessions. Years from now, an incalculable number of people will be living in poverty and missing out on life-enhancing opportunities as a direct result of these lockdowns.
The effect of reduced international travel and trade, and of people reducing their activity voluntarily during the worst of the outbreak, has harmed the Swedish economy. The Swedish government has implemented some stimulus measures—tax cuts as well as public spending. But it has avoided the degree of harm other governments have caused, and, as Bloomberg reports, Sweden’s public finances “remain relatively healthy compared to much of the rest of Europe.”13
Outside Sweden, Covid-19 has been used as an excuse to massively expand the powers of governments—powers that many governments will quietly retain when people no longer consider the virus a serious threat. If not broadly and strongly challenged, the precedent established here will have a lasting, profoundly negative effect on how governments act in the future. In short, lockdowns—far more than Covid-19 itself—have resulted in enormous harm to human well-being and will cause suffering, poverty, and death for years into the future.
Sweden stands as a testament to the fact that these measures and their consequent harm were unnecessary. It rejected lockdowns and so avoided crippling its economy and subjecting its people to devastating restrictions.14 The Swedish government took a largely rational approach to dealing with Covid-19. It limited itself to giving advice, recognizing that locking down its citizens in response to the virus based on limited information and worst-case modeling would likely cause far more significant harm than the virus itself.15
When the dust settles from this pandemic, Sweden’s example will stand as a lesson on how this kind of situation could be better handled. In the meantime, Swedish people have enjoyed an almost exclusive experience in 2020: normal life in a functioning society with the freedom to live in accordance with their judgment. Other countries would be wise to learn from Sweden’s example.
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1. James Gant, “Still Sweden Bucks the Trend: Public Continue to Mill about in Groups as Life Goes on despite Warnings Their Government’s Coronavirus Approach Is Recipe for Disaster,” Daily Mail, April 1, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8177607/STILL-Sweden-doesnt-learn-Public-continue-groups-life-goes-on.html (accessed October 15, 2020).
2. Derek Robertson, “‘They Are Leading Us to Catastrophe’: Sweden’s Coronavirus Stoicism Begins to Jar,” The Guardian, March 30, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/catastrophe-sweden-coronavirus-stoicism-lockdown-europe (accessed October 15, 2020).
3. Gant, “Still Sweden Bucks the Trend.”
4. Worldometer, “Sweden Coronavirus Cases: 102,407, Deaths: 5,910,” https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/sweden/ (accessed October 15, 2020).
5. Oliver Smith, “A Dose of the Old Normal in Mask-Free Sweden,” The Telegraph, October 7, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/sweden/articles/sweden-no-masks-utopia/ (accessed October 15, 2020).
6. Dominic Sandbrook, “No Lockdown, No Masks, No Hysteria . . . No Problem: Sweden Didn’t Go into a Corona Coma—and It’s Living in Glorious Normality. Now Dominic Sandbrook Asks: Is This Proof We Got It All Terribly Wrong?,” Daily Mail, August 22, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8652523/No-lockdown-no-hysteria-DOMINIC-SANDBROOK-asks-Sweden-proof-got-terribly-wrong.html (accessed October 15, 2020).
7. Statista, “COVID-19 Deaths per Capita by Country,” https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/; Catherine Edwards, “Understanding How Sweden Reports Its Coronavirus Figures,” The Local Se, April 14, 2020, https://www.thelocal.se/20200414/understanding-swedens-figures-on-the-coronavirus (accessed October 15, 2020); Martin Kulldorff, PhD, and Grant M. Gallagher, “How Sweden Calculates COVID-19 Deaths,” Contagion Live, August 23, 2020, https://www.contagionlive.com/view/how-sweden-calculates-covid19-deaths (accessed October 15, 2020).
8. Worldometer, “United Kingdom Coronavirus Cases: 673,622, Deaths: 43,293,” https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/uk/ (accessed October 15, 2020).
9. Thomas Erdbrink, “Vilified Early over Lax Virus Strategy, Sweden Seems to Have Scourge Controlled,” New York Times, September 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/world/europe/sweden-coronavirus-strategy.html (accessed October 15, 2020). Maddy Savage, “Coronavirus: What’s Going Wrong in Sweden’s Care Homes?,” BBC News, May 19, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-52704836 (accessed October 15, 2020).
10. Richard Milne, “Anders Tegnell and the Swedish Covid Experiment,” Financial Times, September 11, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/5cc92d45-fbdb-43b7-9c66-26501693a371 (accessed October 15, 2020).
11. M. B. Pell and Benjamin Lesser, “Researchers Warn the COVID-19 Lockdown Will Take Its Own Toll on Health,” Reuters, April 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/health-coronavirus-usa-cost/ (accessed October 15, 2020).
12. Garerth Iacobucci, “Suicide Rates Continue to Rise in England and Wales,” British Medical Journal, September 3, 2020, https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3431 (accessed October 15, 2020); http://www.heraldmalaysia.com/news/suicide-rates-rise-in-japan-among-women-and-youth-as-a-result-of-the-pandemic/56013/2 (accessed October 15, 2020); Charles Pensulo, “‘Drastic Rise’ in Malawi’s Suicide Rate Linked to COVID Economic Downturn,” The Guardian, October 12, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/12/drastic-rise-in-malawis-suicide-rate-linked-to-covid-economic-downturn (accessed October 15, 2020).
13. Rafaela Lindeberg and Niclas Rolander, “Sweden Loosens Purse Strings with Virus Stimulus Budget,” Bloomberg, September 21, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-21/sweden-submits-historic-stimulus-budget-to-parliament (accessed October 19, 2020).
14. Dr. Rachel Irwin, “The Truth about Sweden’s Voluntary Lockdown,” The Spectator, September 23, 2020, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-myth-of-sweden (accessed October 15, 2020).
15. Dr. Rachel Irwin, “Misinformation and De-contextualization: International Media Reporting on Sweden and COVID-19,” BioMed Central, July 13, 2020, https://globalizationandhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12992-020-00588-x (accessed October 15, 2020); Jon Miltimore, “5 Charts That Show Sweden’s Strategy Worked. The Lockdowns Failed,” FEE, October 9, 2020, https://fee.org/articles/5-charts-that-show-sweden-s-strategy-worked-the-lockdowns-failed/ (accessed October 15, 2020).