In terms of illness and death, it appears Sweden has paid a higher price for its approach. As of Monday, it had suffered 3,698 deaths in a country of 10 million. By contrast, Denmark, Norway and Finland, with a combined population of more than 16.5 million, which all imposed tighter restrictions, have seen only 1,081 deaths. Sweden has reported 364.28 deaths per million people, compared with 94.4 for Denmark, 53.7 for Finland and 42.8 for Norway. However, Sweden’s death rate remained lower than those of Britain, France, Italy and Spain, which all imposed strict lockdowns. The virus ravaged Sweden’s nursing homes, which accounted for a large portion of the deaths; the government was slow to restrict visits to them.
At the same time, Sweden will not escape the economic damage of the pandemic. Economists say its economy — tightly woven into global supply chains — will suffer a deep recession this year. Travel has plunged, and many businesses have closed, while joblessness is expected to rise.
What Sweden may gain by its approach, over the longer term, is a population with a greater natural immunity to the virus if there is no vaccine. To achieve a level known as herd immunity, in which the virus is largely unable to spread, two-thirds or more of the population would have to acquire protection stemming from exposure. It isn’t known if Sweden will reach that level or something less. But it might have more natural resiliency against a second wave. Nations that took drastic measures to protect people at the outset will be left with populations that are more susceptible. But if a vaccine is found relatively soon, it will provide immunity with a far lower cost in lives.
What Sweden has demonstrated is the advantage of a high degree of trust in government. People did not have to be ordered to stay at home, wash their hands and flatten the curve; they accepted the recommendations of the government and followed them. In a public health emergency, this reflects common sense and good judgment, a contrast to the noisy demands in the United States to break free from government orders.
The verdict is still out on Sweden. The near-term costs of its approach seem to be high in death and illness, and not inconsequential in economic pain, while the longer-term payoff could be more resilience. The best outcome for all is a vaccine as soon as possible.