We’ve been arguing about the coronavirus response in Sweden for months now and I’m sure we’ll still be arguing about it months from now. Meanwhile Sweden itself has launched an investigation into the handing of the crisis after criticism from parties on both the left and the right.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced on Monday that the country will launch an inquiry into its handling of the pandemic before the summer.
The decision comes amid rising criticisms from opposition parties on both Sweden’s right and left.
Sweden’s two biggest opposition parties – the conservative Moderate Party and the populist Sweden Democrats – urged on Friday for an independent commission to be in place before the summer to investigate the country’s response to the outbreak.
Lofven had previously said a special commission would be appointed once the pandemic is over but he and his Social Democrats party – which rule in coalition with the Greens – have faced mounting pressure to take action sooner.
What’s behind the new pressure to investigate now rather than later is the fact that Sweden now leads the world in deaths per million people:
Sweden has taken the ignominious title of the country with the world’s highest death rate from Covid-19.
The title, which was was briefly held by the UK late last month, comes after Swedish officials decided to ignore the lockdown advice of countless health experts and kept the country largely open during the pandemic.
The number of deaths per capita in Sweden is now more than four-times that of its Nordic neighbours.
To be clear, the death rate being discussed here is new daily deaths. While Sweden now has the most daily deaths per million, that wasn’t always the case. In this version of the graph, you can see that the UK, France and Italy have all had much higher daily totals at the peak, before dropping. Meanwhile Sweden’s average (the red line) has remained relatively high since April.
Those figures are a 7-day average. The death toll in Sweden tends to drop dramatically on the weekends because reports are not being made and then it usually picks up again by Tuesday or Wednesday. So for instance, Sweden didn’t report any new deaths yesterday but that could change in the next couple days.
Sweden’s numbers are especially dramatic when compared to Norway, Denmark and Finland. That difference was highlighted this weekend when Norway and Denmark announced they would be reopening travel between the two countries, but excluding Sweden.
The deal excludes Sweden, which has suffered by far the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the Nordic region. Just a few days before the decision was announced, Swedish foreign minister Ann Linde said that any deal excluding Sweden would be a political decision and not justifiable on health grounds.
The Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen said there was a “strong desire” to find a solution for the Swedish border, but that the countries “are in different places” with respect to the coronavirus situation. The Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg agreed that “the infection situation looks different in Sweden,” but added that Norway is continuing dialog with Sweden, Finland and Iceland about including them at a later date.
That has to sting a bit. So does all of this prove that Sweden’s experiment in it’s handling of the coronavirus has failed. This weekend Wired published a piece saying it does:
More than 4,000 people have died in a country of ten million. For seven of the last 14 days, Sweden has had the highest number of deaths per capita in the world. “Sweden hasn’t changed very much at all,” says Paul Franks, an epidemiologist at Lund University. “But because things have changed in other countries, you’ve noticed the change in the relative death rates.” The comparison is particularly stark when compared to Sweden’s neighbours, which have similar cultural practices and healthcare systems – it has almost four times as many deaths as Norway, Finland and Denmark combined…
In countries that instituted a lockdown, the curve of the epidemic is bell-shaped, with a peak and then a steady decline. Sweden’s looks more like the United States, with cases tailing off much more slowly – and the daily death toll stabilising at a higher level relative to the peak.
Anders Tegnell, the man driving the Swedish response, has consistently denied that he was pushing for herd immunity but has also said that Sweden would be in a better position for a second wave because so many more people will have been infected. But recent antibody testing showed the percentage of the population with antibodies in Sweden was lower than experts believed (in April). So Sweden isn’t really close to benefiting from herd immunity. Last week the NY Times published an article pointing out that herd immunity is still a long way off everywhere around the world.
Official case counts often substantially underestimate the number of coronavirus infections. But in new studies that test the population more broadly, the percentage of people who have been infected so far is still in the single digits. The numbers are a fraction of the threshold known as herd immunity, at which the virus can no longer spread widely. The precise herd immunity threshold for the novel coronavirus is not yet clear; but several experts said they believed it would be higher than 60 percent.
Sweden may be about as close to herd immunity as New York City, which means both places have a long way to go to get there (unless a vaccine becomes available). It’s true that Sweden has so far kept the spread of the virus from overwhelming hospitals, which was the original goal of the shutdown, but even if Sweden hasn’t overwhelmed the health system their approach has been deadly for a lot of elderly Swedes in care homes. And at least so far, Sweden’s neighbors have done far better in limiting those deaths.
Whether the rest of the world can do better than Sweden in the long run still remains to be seen. Right now Sweden’s numbers look bad but that doesn’t mean things will look this way six months or a year from now. Still, the government is concerned enough that it is starting an investigation of the handling of this now rather than months from now. Depending on the results of that investigation, Sweden could change course or decide it was on the right track all along.