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OPINION | Weighing Sweden’s coronavirus model

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THE American left has misunderstood Sweden for years, holding up its significantly liberalized economy as a socialist utopia. Now the misapprehension has moved in the opposite direction, as progressives fret over the country’s supposed economy-over-life approach to Covid-19.

While its neighbors and the rest of Europe imposed strict lockdowns, Stockholm has taken a relatively permissive approach. It has focused on testing and building up health-care capacity while relying on voluntary social distancing, which Swedes have embraced. 

The country isn’t a free-for-all. Restaurants and bars remain open, though only for table service. Younger students are still attending school, but universities have moved to remote learning. Gatherings with more than 50 people are banned, along with visits to elderly-care homes. Even with relatively lax rules, travel in the country dropped some 90% over Easter weekend.

Officials say the country’s strategy — which is similar to the United Kingdom’s before it reversed abruptly in March — is to contain the virus enough to not overwhelm its health system. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, said the country isn’t actively trying to achieve broad immunity. But he predicted late last month that “we could reach herd immunity in Stockholm within a matter of weeks.” Some British public-health officials reportedly leaned toward less restrictive measures before the country’s leaders imposed a harsh lockdown.

This is important context as Sweden takes heat for its relatively high infection rate and death toll. The country of 10 million has 22,721 confirmed cases and 2,769 deaths. Compare that to 240 deaths in Finland, 214 in Norway, and 493 in Denmark — countries with populations under six million. The numbers seem much worse, but Swedish officials say they already are stabilizing.

Sweden has been clear it is aiming for a “sustainable” strategy that it can practice until there is a vaccine or cure while also being economically tolerable. The lockdown countries have held the virus in relative check for now, though probably with less broad immunity in the population. They appear to be delaying some deaths but at the risk of a larger outbreak once they open up if there is no cure. In any case we won’t know for months, or years, how Sweden held up by comparison in lives lost. 

“The important thing is that you make sure you keep the disease under control so that the health-care system isn’t overloaded,” the director general of Sweden’s public-health agency observed. “So far we’ve managed that.”

We already know the response hasn’t been perfect. Despite its ban on visits to nursing homes, Sweden is grappling with a failure to protect the elderly. Data published last week showed that of 1,406 deaths in Stockholm, 630 had tested positive in elderly-care homes. More than 500 such institutions have had at least one confirmed case, though safely running these homes was a problem in Sweden long before Covid-19 appeared.

Mr. Tengell said the Swedish model assumes Covid-19 won’t be disappearing, and he has some support in unlikely quarters. “If we are to reach a new normal, in many ways Sweden represents a future model,” said World Health Organization official Michael Ryan last week. “If we wish to get back to a society in which we don’t have lockdowns, then society may need to adapt for a medium or potentially a longer period of time.”

Sweden, deeply intertwined in the global economy, unfortunately shows that some pandemic-caused economic pain is inevitable. The country’s central bank predicts gross domestic product will contract 6.9% or 9.7% in 2020, depending on how long the virus lingers. Its neighbors expect similar numbers. Unemployment could rise to 8.8% or 10.1%, up from 7.2% today. The Swedish hope is that its economy may pick up faster after its less damaging restrictions are lifted.

No one knows which mitigation strategy will save the most lives while doing the least economic harm. But the rush to condemn Sweden isn’t helpful. American governors should study the Swedish model as they begin relaxing statewide lockdowns.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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