The response last spring, at the urging of state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, seemed attractive while the United States and others struggled with lockdowns. Many people wondered whether the Swedish experiment might offer an easier alternative, avoiding the severe economic and social costs of closure. President Trump, after a few weeks of lockdown, essentially embraced it, urging states to reopen. More recently, his former adviser Scott Atlas championed the ideas that stricter shutdowns can cause damage to education and economic well-being and are not necessary for public health. On Oct. 22, the Swedish public health agency announced some relaxations for nursing homes and elderly people, and permitted gatherings of up to 300 people for cultural and sporting events as long as they were properly distanced.
But Sweden is now caught in a wave of pandemic pain — and reversing course. Sweden has 48.9 new confirmed cases per 100,000 population, compared with 21.7 in Denmark, 8.2 in Norway and 7.7 in Finland. Sweden is averaging about 42.6 deaths per day, compared with 6.9 in Denmark, 3 in Norway and 2.1 in Finland. Sweden’s total 6,798 deaths, predominantly among the elderly, dwarf the toll in the other Nordic nations combined.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven declared Nov. 16 that Swedes were not following restrictions as closely as they did in the spring, so gatherings during the next four weeks would be limited to eight people. “This is the new norm for the entire society,” he said. “Don’t go to gyms, don’t go to libraries, don’t host dinners. Cancel.” Mr. Lofven gave a nationally televised speech on Sunday reiterating that people should “call it off, cancel, postpone.”
In Sweden, people are inclined to follow crisis instructions voluntarily and the public health agency has a great deal of independence; the government had delegated the early pandemic response to Dr. Tegnell. But it appears the promised immunity was not reached. “The issue of herd immunity is difficult,” Dr. Tegnell said at a briefing in Stockholm on Nov. 24. “We see no signs of immunity in the population that are slowing down the infection right now.” Polls show that Swedish public confidence in the authorities has sagged.
Sweden probably was right to keep classrooms open. But in other respects, the experiment flopped. There are no magic wands. Until a vaccine is ready, the virus will leap from person to person in close contact, and the most effective way to stop it is to avoid that contact.