Thursday, October 1, 2020
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Sweden and a case of corona schizophrenia

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HAVING shunned a formal lockdown, Sweden continues to divide opinion over its management of the coronavirus crisis. Views differ to the extent that a few days ago the Telegraph simultaneously and schizophrenically published divergent reactions to the news that during the second quarter of 2020 Swedish GDP declined by 8.6 per cent. 

‘Sweden suffers record plunge despite lighter lockdown’ was the uncomplimentary headline above a piece by Tom Rees. Evidently unconvinced by the Swedish strategy, the writer sceptically queried: ‘Whether trying to spare the economy was worth allowing the virus to rip through the country is a question Sweden is still trying to answer.’

Leaving aside Rees’s wilful misrepresentation of the Swedes’ motivation, his appraisal of Sweden’s economic and public health performances is unnecessarily negative. Although the quarterly contraction due to coronavirus of 8.6 per cent is indeed unprecedented for the country, Sweden’s economy has escaped relatively lightly: for EU states which have already reported for the second quarter, the average reduction to GDP has been 11.9 per cent – above which were France, Italy and, worst of all, Spain, where the economy shrank by a massive 18.5 per cent.

Which is why, contradicting the abject assessment of Sweden by Tom Rees, his Telegraph colleague Richard Orange legitimately presented the Swedes’ damage limitation as ‘growing evidence that the decision to avoid a full lockdown is paying economic dividends’. 

Certainly, the Scandinavians’ economy has not suffered from self-inflicted harm to the extent being experienced elsewhere in Europe, including the UK. Our Office for National Statistics will shortly report for the second quarter of 2020; however, we already know that during the three months to May 31 the government’s largely futile attempts to save lives, by confining the country to barracks, concomitantly caused GDP to fall by a devastating 19.1 per cent.  

Nor is it remotely fair to suggest, as did Rees, that the Swedes sought to mitigate economic damage by ‘allowing the virus to rip through the country’. Undoubtedly there is an unfavourable comparison between Covid-related deaths in Sweden and the fatality rates of its Nordic neighbours; nonetheless, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who commendably has held his nerve throughout the crisis and continues to dictate Sweden’s rational response, contends that his country’s demography and pockets of population density are more analogous to countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, by which measure Swedish mortality has been unexceptional.

One thing the Swedes have acknowledged, with a candour and humility conspicuously absent in Britain, is that they signally failed to protect many vulnerable occupants of the country’s long-term care facilities. That blunder helps explain why Sweden’s coronavirus deaths have overwhelmingly been elderly – the over-80s account for two-thirds of fatalities – but it is unrelated to the Swedes’ decision to eschew a full lockdown.

Furthermore, unlike much of Europe, it appears Sweden is now benefiting from having built up a greater collective immunity.

In neighbouring Norway, which in March shut schools and instantly battened down the hatches, the Prime Minister now admits: ‘I probably took many of the decisions out of fear.’ Norway’s chief public health official concedes: ‘We could possibly have achieved the same effects and avoided some of the unfortunate impacts by not locking down, but by instead keeping open but with infection control measures.’ 

In other words, Norway now wishes it had acted more like Sweden, which crucially kept its schools open and treated its citizens as grown-ups, allowing people responsibly to distance themselves and voluntarily limit their domestic travel. Even now, Sweden remains mask-free, because as the admirable Anders Tegnell observes: ‘The evidence base for using masks in society is still very weak . . . we haven’t seen any new evidence coming up, which is a little bit surprising I can say.’ 

And unlike in the UK, where pointlessly meddlesome measures aimed at eliminating Covid-19 continue to restrict everyday activities, Tegnell contends that we must simply get on with life: ‘I don’t think this is a disease that we can eradicate . . . If you look at diseases like the flu and other respiratory viruses, we are not even close to eradicating them despite the fact we have a vaccine in place. I personally believe that this is a disease we are going to have to live with.’

Scandinavian stoicism was also evident in remarks made last month by Lena Hallengren, Sweden’s Minister for Health and Social Affairs. Playing down how distinct her country has been, she noted: ‘Fundamentally, Sweden’s measures only differ from other countries in two regards: we are not shutting down schools for younger children or childcare facilities and we have no regulation that forces citizens to remain in their homes.’ 

‘Only differs in two regards,’ she says, in a masterpiece of understatement. Put another way, Britain has differed from Sweden ‘only’ in that Johnson, Sturgeon and Drakeford stopped educating their countries’ children and ‘only’ in the way our governors arbitrarily abandoned liberty by indiscriminately interning their people.

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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