Was Sweden right about Covid all along?

While Britain was locked down like the rest of the world, Sweden became the defiant state of emergency

This article was originally published on February 23, 2022.

To understand Sweden, you have to understand a word that is difficult to explain, let alone translate: lagom. It actually means “perfectly simple”: neither too much nor too little. People who are lagom do not stand out and do not make noise: they blend right in with you – and this is perceived as a virtue.

Essays are being written about why lagom sums up a certain Swedish way of thinking – that it’s bad to stand out, think you’re better, or be special. That’s why it’s so strange that during the lockdowns, Sweden became a global challenge outside the country.

The Swedes saw it the other way around. They kept calm and continued: the blockade was an extreme, draconian, unproven experiment. Lock everyone up, keep kids out of school, suspend civil liberties, send the police after people walking their dogs – and call it “precaution”? Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, never spoke of a Swedish “experiment.” He has said all along that he cannot recommend a public health intervention that has never been proven.

Tegnell noted one more thing: that he did not claim to be right. It will take years, he argues, to see who jumped the right way. His calculation was that on a society-wide basis, the collateral damage of the locks would outweigh their benefit. But you will know if it is so only after a few years. You’ll have to look at cancer diagnosis, hospital waiting lists, educational damage and, yes, count the dead from Covid.

The problem with blocking is that no one is looking at the pictures of the whole society. Professor Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College London admitted this once, as a slight aside. “We do not take into account the broader social and economic costs of suppression,” they wrote in an alleged assessment of the lockdown, “which will be high.” But how high? And were they worth the price?

After Sweden lifted all domestic Covid restrictions, it emerged with one of Europe’s lowest Covid deaths: a rate of 1,614 per million people, just over half that of Britain (2,335). Given that our death tolls were comparable to begin with (both among the worst anywhere), it’s hard to argue that there was some demographic force that meant Covid would never have spread to Sweden.

Nor is it possible to argue that Sweden was some kind of hedonistic party nation: its people were incredibly cautious. But unlike the British, they had a government that believed in them.

There were some Swedish dictates: for a time a “rule of eight” was established. All bars, restaurants and cafes were socially distanced and at one point had to close by 8.30pm. For a few weeks, Swedes even had vaccine passports. But that was all: the rest was guidance, and it was followed.

What no statistics can express is how careful the Swedes were; something that struck me every time I visited. It was perfectly legal to meet in bars and drink fika in a cafe, but most didn’t. A friend of mine had a rule that she always met friends outside – even in the Stockholm winter (she did this so much she got frostbite). Last summer, surveys showed that Swedes work from home more than in any other European country.

This keeps Covid low while the lack of rules allows people to use their judgment while minimizing economic and social damage. Sweden’s GDP fell by 2.9 percent in 2020, while Britain’s collapsed by 9.4 percent.

The cost of the various measures against Covid is best summed up by the debt mountain: an extra £8,400 per person in the UK and £3,000 in Sweden.

Swedish schools continued to operate everywhere, without masks. Sixth graders and university students switched to home schooling, but the rest of the Swedish children went to school as usual. That’s not to say there weren’t absences while the virus was spreading: it was common to see a third, sometimes even half, of the class absent due to the sniffles or suspected Covid. But there have been no full-scale closures and, apart from some suspicions of a little grade inflation (the average math grade slipped to 10.1 from 9.3), there is no talk of a devastation of education in Sweden.

There is a disaster and a cover-up in Britain. By giving more grades than ever before – and telling universities to make more space – young people can be pushed through the system, with lost ground never recognized or fully made up.

With the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, life in Sweden returns to normal - Nora Lorek/Bloomberg

With the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, life in Sweden returns to normal – Nora Lorek/Bloomberg

Grade inflation has been staggering: the number of A-level students graded A or A* has jumped to 45 per cent, up from 26 per cent before the pandemic, but no one doubts that these students have learned far less. By some measures, educational inequality has gone back 10 years. But some problems are too big to admit.

Scholars suggest that the effect of lost education is permanent: less education inevitably means lower wages and slower career advancement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies talks about £40,000 in lost earnings over the lifetime of a student in the UK, a total of £350 billion. Swedish studies estimate that the impact of Covid (on absenteeism and home schooling) could mean a total hit of £800m – far less than the impact on lost school days in the UK.

The impact on hospital waiting lists is also very different. Fear of a virus keeps people away – at the peak of the first wave, visits to Swedish emergency rooms were 31 percent lower than normal; in Great Britain it fell by 57 percent. Routine operations have fallen by 20% in Sweden and 34% in England, so waiting lists have grown in both countries. As they did almost all over the world.

But in no country has the waiting list grown as large as in Britain: from 4.4 million before the pandemic, it will peak at around 9.2 million, according to NHS modeling – the equivalent of one in five adults .

Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist, has said from the start that he cannot recommend a public health intervention that has never been proven - MAGNUS ANDERSON/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has said from the start that he cannot recommend a public health intervention that has never been proven – MAGNUS ANDERSON/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

A top-down health service is more easily disrupted if it is ordered to transform into a Covid service (and people are told to ‘protect the NHS’ by not using it). Waiting lists in Sweden, 130,000 before the pandemic, reached 170,000 in October 2021. Even adjusted for population, this is nowhere near the size of Britain’s problem.

Sweden will not declare victory. Nobody was properly prepared for Covid and the country’s failure to protect care home residents is still seen as a national scandal. Sweden has also taken a bigger hit than its neighbours: Blockade Denmark has something to shout about when it comes to combining a lower Covid hit with minimal economic shock.

But, as Tegnell would say, it’s still too early to say – with any finality – who got it right and who didn’t.

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