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So Was Sweden a Covid Success or Failure?


Sweden has been a lightning rod since early in the Covid-19 pandemic. Opponents of lockdowns and mask mandates in the U.S. and U.K. pointed to its more-relaxed approach and relatively modest death toll as evidence that drastic measures were not only overkill, but counterproductive.

Critics of Sweden’s approach, meanwhile, noted that it is a nation of only 10 million people in a relatively isolated corner of Europe, and that its fellow Nordic countries have all done a far better job of protecting their citizens from Covid-19.

Sweden does have about twice the population of each of its three immediate neighbors, and 28 times that of Iceland. It also has a lot more foreign-born residents relative to its population than Denmark and Finland, and somewhat more than Norway and Iceland, which could factor into the effectiveness of public-health efforts.  Iceland, the standout here in a positive sense, has the advantage of being an island.

So I tried a different screen, comparing Sweden with the other nations around the world with populations between 6 million and 90 million and very high incomes (my cutoff was a 2021 purchasing-power-adjusted per-capita gross domestic product of $50,000, as estimated by the International Monetary Fund).

Sweden’s relative performance is actually better than the chart indicates, given that it has been more aggressive than most countries in attributing deaths to Covid-19. By the estimates of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Sweden’s reported Covid deaths account for about 90% of excess deaths (that is, deaths above normal levels) during the pandemic. For France that’s 78%, for Germany 68% and for the Netherlands only 58%. (Denmark, Finland and Norway all have lower reported-to-excess-deaths percentages than Sweden too, but not nearly enough lower to come close to bridging the mortality-rate gap.)

So Sweden has had middling success in battling Covid-19. Given how much more successful its Nordic neighbors have been, and the fact that it entered 2020 with such built-in advantages as a very healthy populace and among the world’s highest percentages of people who (1) live by themselves and (2) can work from home, that has to be seen as something of a disappointment. But Sweden’s approach of few forced shutdowns of schools and businesses and lots of reliance on personal responsibility does seem to have worked better than the U.K.’s careening back and forth between strict lockdowns and paying people to eat in restaurants, or the cacophony of different policies followed by state and local governments in the U.S.

It’s not that life has gone on as normal in Sweden. Over the course of the pandemic, Swedes appear to have cut back on outside-the-home activities even more than Danes have — although less than Americans, except for last winter and early spring.

I don’t have the knowledge or the space to get into a detailed comparison of pandemic policies here, but in general the Nordic countries other than Sweden seem to have resorted to lockdowns but kept them short, then pushed for a quick return to semi-normality when cases dropped. In Sweden, public-health officials tried to avoid that kind of stop-start approach, instead favoring recommendations meant for the long haul. By last winter, though, they had put in place enough restrictions on gatherings that Sweden’s Covid policies were assessed by the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker to be of more or less average stringency for Europe.

Sweden’s economic performance has been more or less average, too. Its gross domestic product declined at an annualized real pace of 0.1%, better than most of Europe but worse than Denmark and Finland (and worse than the annualized 0.6% gain for the U.S., which I didn’t include in the chart because Eurostat doesn’t calculate U.S. GDP in constant Euros as it does for non-Euro-using Denmark, Norway and Sweden).

On jobs, at least by my chosen measure of the change in working-age employment-population ratio, Sweden is near the bottom of the pack among wealthy countries, along with Canada and the U.S.

The differences here have as much to do with government employment policies as with underlying economic strength. Some wealthy countries have gone to great lengths to prevent unemployment, in part by paying employers to keep workers on staff, while others — notably the U.S. — have directed most aid to individuals rather than fighting layoffs. Sweden had employment subsidies for those with full-time jobs, but not for lower-wage contract and self-employed workers who have been hit hard by the pandemic.

In sum, Sweden stood out early in the pandemic for its public-health policies, but not so much since last fall. On the whole, it doesn’t look especially remarkable for either its success or failure in combating Covid-19 or its economic performance over the past year-and-a-half. Maybe it’s time to retire its status as a pandemic lightning rod.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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