Sweden stands out from all other affected countries in Europe. Not only have they kept open schools, but most businesses are still open, the population still at work, and even restaurants and bars are still doing a trade at night. Sweden has as a result of this predictably seen a higher number of infections, than it’s Scandinavian neighbours in particular, but also many of its European neighbours. However, in economic terms, Sweden is outperforming nearly every affected country in Europe.
With 34000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 4000 people dead at the time of writing, it would appear that Sweden has, compared to Spain and Italy for example, contained the virus quite well. Compared to a closer neighbour with more in common geographically and politically, Norway, which has seen 8000 cases and 235 deaths, it seems less favourable, even given that Norway has half the population in total.
Sweden’s low population however means that even these relatively low figures leave Sweden with the highest coronavirus-per-capita death rate in the world. Over the period from the 13 to 20 May, they recorded an average of 6.08 deaths per million each day.
With lockdowns, travel bans and schools and businesses closed right across the globe, Sweden has taken an approach completely at odds with the rest of the world. Labelled risky and reckless, as they have kept the country open for business. Despite the international reaction, the Swedish public widely support the approach.
Compared to the hail of criticism many governments are experiencing as a result of their lockdowns, this makes Sweden also somewhat unique. However, it’s important to state that Sweden has implemented measures to control the spread of the disease. Large gatherings have been banned, and high schools and universities are closed. The old and those with underlying conditions have also been advised to self-isolate. Face masks are still not compulsory in Sweden, however.
This is despite the fact that the virus has been nearly ten times more deadly in Sweden than Norway (who have implemented a lockdown), even though it has only twice the population. Hospitals in Sweden have not been overwhelmed or run out of PPE protective gear or KN95 masks, and the worst-case scenarios in terms of numbers of infections have not been hit. It is perhaps because of this that the government have retained support for their approach.
Probably the biggest factor keeping dissent to a minimum is the performance of the Swedish economy relative to other countries in Scandinavia. Personal spending has dropped in Sweden as it has everywhere else, but with only a 30% dip compared to 70% in Finland. Sweden has also avoided the wave of redundancies and resulting spike in unemployment figures, with the rise in claims only 25% the pace of that seen in Norway.
Even though the economy is still productive and not expected to be hit anything like as hard as it’s neighbours, Sweden will still suffer from the coming global recession. They will undoubtedly though be much better placed for recovery, if and when the epidemic is brought under control.
The Swedish approach it seems was geared towards preparing the country for the second and third wave of infection by aiming to create herd immunity, an idea tabled and then rejected (eventually) by the UK authorities. Studies in April suggested between 25-40% of Stockholm may have actually already contracted the virus, which it is assumed will mean they develop some level of immunity. It is estimated that figure could be as high as 60% by late May. For comparison, in France, it is currently believed to stand at around 6%.
However, with recent cases of reinfection of previously infected patients, and research into immunity and indeed vaccination for COVID-19 at an embryonic stage, there are no guarantees.
So although Sweden’s economy is in good shape, it waits to be seen whether or not the herd immunity approach will reap rewards in the future, should we see a second or third wave of infections. If we assume that the second and third wave is inevitable and that any infected person develops immunity, then in a year’s time Sweden’s approach might be celebrated for its foresight. At present their relative death rates look stark, but with their economy poised for recovery, time will tell if Sweden got it right.