It was only last week that we lambasted a Foreign Policy article which had to engage in truly creative writing in order to depict Sweden’s “no lockdown, no tracing, and confused guidance” approach to Covid-19 as something worth copying. Before then, even the firmly pro-business Wall Street Journal had cleared its throat and depicted the Swedish experiment as a bust: far more lives lost than its neighbors, with no benefit for the economy.
Yet shortly after the factually-challenged Foreign Policy piece ran, so did an oddity in VoxEU, The underpinnings of Sweden’s permissive COVID regime, whose headline too-cleverly make Sweden’s laid back approach to Covid-19 sound like result of its sexual freedom. But if you look at the list of factors that supposedly engendered Sweden’s dodgy approach, they are not only decidedly non-carnal, but it is hard to see how the cultural ones are much different from those of Finland or Norway.
The ones buried in the middle of the piece seem to be the most important:
Keep the economy going
The present government is a coalition led by the Social Democrats, but all eight parties in parliament generally favour the approach taken to COVID. The Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, formerly head of the metal-workers union and now with high approval ratings (Novus 2020), is proving himself to be on the more pragmatic side of the Social Democrats. There is wide consensus in Sweden on the value and moral significance of working. Sweden is also sensitive to its dependence on exports and needs to maintain its service to the world economy. The crisis of the early 1990s is important here: Sweden responded by liberalising, and the reforms have succeeded. The bumblebee has continued to fly despite the heavy tax load.
Aiming for herd immunity?
There have not been official pronouncements about herd immunity, but it is likely part of the broader strategy. Swedish experts have primarily considered the risk groups and have looked to targeted action, with mixed results. Deaths have been especially high among those in elderly care homes despite strict restrictions on visiting.2 Immigrant neighbourhoods have been especially vulnerable as well. However, there has been more success in maintaining intensive-care capacity. The ambition is to have hospital staff on the job; hence, childcare and schools for children up to high schools continue to operate.
Needless to say, not only does more and more evidence indicate the death cost of the Swedish is still vastly higher than that of its neighbors, the financial costs could increase as a direct result of letting the infection propagate with relatively few checks. The Financial Times described yesterday how the countries on Sweden’s borders are considering keeping restrictions in place even as they open up to other countries. The frictional cost of border restrictions will put Sweden at a disadvantage for commerce and tourism.
A version of this phenomenon is happening now with New York City. Even though the Federal bankruptcy courts in New York (the Eastern and Southern district) have long been the preferred venue for corporate filings, with the result that the heavyweight bankruptcy firms also have most of their top professionals in Manhattan, the recent big bankruptcy filings, such as J.C. Penny, are being lodged in Texas instead. Lawyers apparently don’t want to go to the leper colony of New York City if they can avoid it.
Denmark, Finland and Norway are debating whether to maintain travel restrictions on Sweden but ease them for other countries as they nervously eye their Nordic neighbour’s higher coronavirus death toll.
Sweden has the highest mortality rate per capita at this stage of the epidemic, according to a Financial Times tracker that uses a seven-day rolling average of new deaths…
The FT tracker shows that Sweden had 6.4 deaths per million people 61 days after its death rate first climbed above 0.1 deaths per million. That contrasts with the UK’s 6.2 deaths per million at the same stage, Italy’s 5.5, and Spain’s 4….
Denmark is weighing whether to open its borders with Germany and Norway but not to Sweden. Several opposition parties, which have a majority in Denmark’s parliament, have said the borders need to be opened to help the country’s tourism industry but that the high death rate in Sweden was worrying….
Sweden has not closed its borders and cross-border travel is still allowed in many areas for work purposes including health personnel. Norwegians are allowed to visit Sweden but have to go into 10 days’ quarantine when they return. Norway’s centre-right government will decide in June whether to maintain the restrictions or not.
Other newspapers have taken note of Sweden’s death leadership. From the Telegraph, in Sweden becomes country with highest coronavirus death rate per capita:
Sweden has now overtaken the UK, Italy and Belgium to have the highest coronavirus per capita death rate in the world, throwing its decision to avoid a strict lockdown into further doubt.
According to figures collated by the Our World in Data website, Sweden had 6.08 deaths per million inhabitants per day on a rolling seven-day average between May 13 and May 20.
This is the highest in the world, above the UK, which have 5.57, 4.28 and 4.11 respectively.
The only saving grace is that Sweden has only just obtained the status of highest death rate; if you look over longer periods, countries like Italy and the US are ahead.
Oh, and that herd immunity? Fuggedaboudit.
A lot of government reports from European countries on seroprevalence to SARS-CoV-2 this week and they all show the same – it's low.
Norway < 1%
Let's end the discussion about miracles and natural herd immunity? The data is in.
— Kristian G. Andersen (@K_G_Andersen) May 20, 2020
So anyone still trying to sell Sweden as a success is either badly informed or, as readers speculated on our earlier post, has an anti-lockdown agenda. And if this is the best evidence they can muster, workers look to have every reason to want none of it.