Sweden opted for gentle measures to save its economy, two months later neither the economy nor public health have resisted
The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has forced countries to take measures by setting a dial, such as the volume adjustment dial, between 0 (prioritizing saving lives and avoiding contagions by taking drastic measures for the economy) and 100 (prioritizing the economy at the cost of compromising public health). Most chose measures closer to the former than the latter, but Sweden was one of those who tended more towards trying to save the economy through weaker measures than that of its European neighbors, a decision that went beyond the capacity of decide: the swedish constitution does not allow the country to be confined in peacetime.
Those initial measures of the month of March, when Italy or Spain had already ordered harsh confinements, were such as limiting public gatherings to five hundred people, but nothing to close schools or shops. Not even gyms. A few weeks later, its coronavirus death rate relative to its total population is one of the highest in Europe and is well above that of its Scandinavian neighbors.
Without confinement, with recommendations
Anders Tegnell being interviewed by the Swedish press in April. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
It is not that Sweden turns a deaf ear to the pandemic. Citizens have been urged by the authorities to exercise caution with the virus in mind, to wash their hands very frequently and to isolate themselves if the symptoms of COVID-19 are noted. Individual responsibility and voluntary preventive measures were called for. He did not turn a deaf ear, although few countries have seen such lax measures that put hygienic prevention in the hands of the public.
Sweden made international news for its smooth strategy in the face of the pandemic, but its death toll is closer to Spain and Italy than to its Scandinavian neighbors
In charge of this strategy is the state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. For making a parallel, "the Swedish Fernando Simón", who has been in office since 2013. He leads a team of fifteen scientific professionals who meet every morning and report to the government twice a week. "The death toll has surprised us," said Tegnell. "We never estimate such a high number of deaths." Almost 4,000 dead (as of May 21) in a country of just over ten million inhabitants.
As in Spain, a large part of its deceased died in nursing homes. Her predecessor in office, Annika Linde, criticized the government's strategy saying that "it may not have been the smartest" and explaining that if you could go back in time, tougher measures would have been taken much earlier.
It is not the only local voice in the scientific community critical of the government. More than 2,000 Swedish scientists signed an open letter in April calling for confinement like that of most European countries and criticizing the government's inaction. Tegnell went on to say that "closing borders is ridiculous."
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Although its constitution prevents confinement at the same level as that seen in other countries, it would have been feasible to tighten the measures taken, setting smaller gaps or imposing the use of masks, measures increasingly unanimously recognized as appropriate to prevent contagion. Meanwhile, some national epidemiologists defended non-confinement, considering that "the pandemic was equally uncontrollable."
Tegnell himself defended even in late April that the asymptomatic infected were not a great risk, and that those who did present symptoms were the ones who had to monopolize the isolation efforts to prevent them from infecting healthy citizens. Precisely in early April was when the death rate from COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants began to skyrocket and rise above those of Denmark, Norway or Finland.
Something that also did not help contain the virus was the Swedish government's estimate, which numbered around 30% of the population who believed that the virus had passed, and therefore had been immunized against it. That was in late April. A few weeks later, serological samples revealed that only 7.3% of Swedes had antibodies against the virus, far from previous estimates and even further from herd immunity, and in a range similar to that of many others. countries, like Spain itself.
Despite the catastrophic development of events in Sweden in recent weeks, such a short period of time may be revealing only part of the story. At the end of the day, if we have been assuming anything for the last three months, it is that this battle will be longer than we could think, and that the strategies vary as we know more about the virus and how to avoid a health debacle by At the same time that the economy is achieved, it suffers as little as possible.
Linde herself admitted that "there are so many things about this virus that we still don't understand that it's impossible to say what's going to happen. Part of the wisdom is to be brave enough to question your own assumptions and acknowledge that fact." The race against the pandemic has more of a long-distance race than sprinteven with the speed that saving lives requires.
Same economic decline, higher healthcare cost
If one of the arguments of the Swedish government to argue the refusal to tighten the measures weeks ago was to safeguard the economy, the bet has not gone well in that regard either. At least for now.
Despite being unable to confine the country and taking lax measures, the Swedish economy falls at the same rate as that of the rest of the European Union
Denmark, Finland and Norway, which by culture, latitude, population or climate are the most comparable countries to Sweden, took much tougher measures. And yet the economy of the three countries has fallen to very similar levels, only in Sweden it has done so at the cost of much higher public health costs. Or to put it more directly: the same economic consequence, but more deaths.
The lessons of the first months of the pandemic in the Scandinavian countries also do not support the Swedish government's strategy. We insist: for the moment. No one can predict what the economic and health figures will be like in a year. The cases of Germany or Japan and Singapore reopening after hard confinements and experiencing major flare-ups are a reminder that no one has invented the magic formula to resist the virus until the day a vaccine or cure arrives. And even less if we think in the long term, where the unknowns multiply.
Martin Kolk, demographer from Stockholm University, acknowledged the high death rates compared to the forecasts before The New York Times, and said that "it will be very different if we continue to see excess mortality for six more months, or if it returns to normal levels in a few weeks," referring to this "excess mortality" as the number of deaths above usual on those dates. Sweden is around 25-30%, better than Spain or Italy, but well above its Scandinavian neighbors, located between 0% and 5%.
Andreas Hatzigeorgiou, CEO of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, told the local media The Local - Redundancy prevails - that "Sweden is a small country that depends on international trade and investment" in reference to the fact that it could only try to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Christina Nyman, chief economist at the Swedish bank Handelsbanken, explained to the same media that unemployment had skyrocketed to one million unemployed - the usual workforce is around four million - and that they expected a sharp rise in unemployment, although it is too soon for to make conclusions.
The Swedish Central Bank projects a drop in Swedish GDP of between 7% and 10%, the same range in which is the European Commission's forecast for the reduction of the economy of the entire Union (7.5% ). Unpublished figures since the start of World War II.
In the long term, better conclusions can be drawn about each country's response to the 2020 pandemic, but the Swedish model is now being touched, despite having been flattered a few weeks ago by even the US government and being pointed out as a model to be followed by the protesters of the North American country. Neither as many lives were saved as in their neighboring countries, nor was the economy luckier. The first match has been lost, but the fight continues.