Covid-19: Sweden’s Unique Response

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented health and economic crisis and with no vaccine, several countries have resorted to various strategies to contain the spread. A few countries, most notably Sweden, have taken a unique approach that has sparked both curiosity and controversy. With a population of 10 million people, Sweden has adopted a more relaxed control strategy that relies heavily on “herd immunity” and no lockdowns.

In this article, we’ll dive into Sweden’s response to Covid-19, and explore how their strategies compare with other countries. We’ll also take a look at their motivations and the science behind the approach.

A Brief Overview of Sweden’s Response to Covid-19

Sweden has opted to continue many activities that other European countries have restricted. When measures were first announced to contain the spread of the disease, Sweden’s approach was different from most other countries. Instead of imposing strict lockdowns, Sweden asked its citizens to be responsible for their own safety, giving them the liberty to decide how to take precautions like wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and frequent handwashing.

Schools and restaurants remained open. People were asked to maintain social distancing, practice good hygiene, and work from home if possible. Elderly citizens were urged to stay at home, and citizens over the age of 70 were denied entry to crowded events like concerts and sports matches.

Given that this strategy is not as restrictive as in other countries, citizens felt their government trusted them to make their own decisions. However, the major difference between Sweden and other European countries was its focus on achieving herd immunity.

The Debate Regarding Herd Immunity

Sweden’s approach resulted in a debate regarding the effectiveness of pursuing herd immunity, as it requires more infections to be recorded in order to develop widespread natural immunity in the population. The theory suggests that high infection rates lead to widespread immunity and that, eventually, the virus would no longer be able to spread in such a community.

This strategy was criticized both by medical experts and the public at large. Opponents argued that it would overwhelm the healthcare system, push up fatalities, and lead to life-long consequences for the most vulnerable. Supporters argued that the “lockdown” strategy proposed by other countries would just delay the contagion and weaken the economy.

The Science Behind Sweden’s Herd Immunity Strategy

To understand the rationale behind Sweden’s approach, it is important to note that the virus thrives in denser populations. As Sweden is a relatively sparsely populated country, it is less likely for the disease to spread as rapidly as in a larger population.

Sweden has been relying on model-based predictions of the pandemic and much of their approach is a result of those models. Sweden’s reliance on herd immunity is based on their predictions that there will not be enough cases to overwhelm the health system.

The Swedes emphasize that the strict stay-at-home measures put in place elsewhere will just delay the spread to later in the year and push up infections when the virus is more dangerous. This, they argue, will have a greater cost.

Arguments in Favour of Sweden’s Strategy

Massive queues outside testing centers, exhausted healthcare workers, locked-down population – these are the uncomfortable realities an increasing number of countries have to endure due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. With almost 27 million confirmed cases and over 900,000 deaths worldwide, many countries have had no other choice than to implement lockdown measures in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

However, not all countries are following this conservative route. During the initial weeks of the pandemic, Sweden implemented a different course of action. The focus was on action and preparedness without risking the functioning of society. Sweden’s strategy has been heavily debated, but here are some arguments in favour of their contrasting approach:

  1. Sustaining a healthier economy

While other countries have resorted to drastic measures and long-lasting lockdowns, Sweden’s relaxed measures have kept the economy moving. Despite the virus, citizens can still work and shop, restaurants, schools and parks are still open, and people do not have to go into self-quarantine. This has saved jobs, rather than causing layoffs as we have seen in other countries.

  1. Avoiding shock to the system

The lockdown measures introduced by other countries have led to a shock to their systems, with much longer-term economic impacts that could take years to recover. Sweden have tried to avoid this shock, and the resulting economic losses and impact on citizens, by taking a more balanced approach instead.

  1. Allowing greater trust of government

One major advantage of Sweden’s approach is that it generates more trust of the government. Giving citizens more leeway to make their own decisions has helped create a closer relationship between the government and citizens, which is not only important for tackling this crisis but also for contributing to good governance and democratic participation in the future.

  1. Encouraging behavioural change

Although some people are sceptical, Sweden’s trust in their citizens has had positive effects. Swedes seem to have taken on a greater responsibility for their own actions, focusing on social distancing and hygiene. This has resulted in many members of the population adhering to the necessary requirements for containing the virus and playing an active role in their own safety.

Criticisms of Sweden’s Strategy

Sweden caused a stir when they announced their unique approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic, arousing both curiosity and criticism from both inside and outside of their borders. Opponents of Sweden’s approach outline the following concerns:

  1. Extremely high mortality rate

Sweden’s mortality rate has been the highest in Europe, second only to the UK. But with only three weeks difference in lockdown between them, this has sparked questions around why the difference in mortality rates is so great.

  1. Risking too much too soon

Many argue that Sweden is taking too big of a risk too early by trialing out herd immunity and even though the death rate might not be equal to some other countries, the population’s long-term health is still uncertain.

  1. Overburdening the health system

Creating an environment where the number of people who become infected is higher could lead to an inability of the health system to cope with the number of patients needing intensive care, putting strain on resources that might already be limited.

  1. Ignoring other unique factors

Some argue that due to Sweden’s advanced age structure, fewer younger people will become infected, which would mean the mortality rate would automatically be poorer compared to countries with younger populations.

Sweden’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been quite unique in its approach. However, although taking a different approach to most other countries, it is far from being a guinea pig for a dangerous experiment. The Swedish government has provided a remarkable level of transparency and openly welcomed both good and bad critiques on their policies. It remains to be seen how well the Swedish strategy works for the long-term, but for now, the approach certainly deserves attention.