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What Happened With That Whole Sweden Experiment? Did It Fail?

(OLIVIER HOSLET/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Adam Barnes General Assignment Reporter
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Sweden’s previously hands-off approach to coronavirus policy formally ended when Prime Minister Stefan Lofven began implementing rigid restrictions at the end of November. The country’s cases and death tolls have steadily risen and hospitals in major areas are near capacity. Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf even said his nation’s strategy has “failed,” referring specifically to the elderly who have died in care homes.

Sweden’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic was described by its critics as “laissez faire,” pushed by Swedish leaders as a way to mitigate potentially catastrophic economic consequences caused by lockdowns. Did it fail? And if so, did it fail along comparative economic standards, public health standards or both?

“We have a large number who have died and that is terrible. It is something we all have to suffer with. You think of all the family members who have not been able to say goodbye to their deceased family members,” Gustav said in an excerpt of a pre-recorded Christmas interview to be broadcast Dec. 21 on Swedish broadcaster SVT. “I think it is a heavy and traumatic experience not to be able to say a warm goodbye.”

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, said on a Swedish Radio podcast in June that the possible negative impacts of draconian pandemic policies were a major factor in the country’s approach. Tegnell said global action in the early months was “as if the world had gone mad,” giving into the number of cases and political pressure.

“In the same way that all drugs have side effects, measures against a pandemic also have negative effects,” he said. “At an authority like ours, which works with a broad spectrum of public health issues, it is natural to take these aspects into account.”

Dr. David Nabarro, one of the World Health Organization’s six special envoys on COVID-19, praised the Swedish government for putting faith in its citizens, as reported by Fortune. Nabarro described lockdowns as a “blunt instrument” that “bites into the livelihoods of everybody, particularly poorer people and small businesses.”

“For all countries, the real approach we’ve got to aim for is through behavior that’s adopted everywhere,” Nabarro said. “In Sweden, the government was able to trust the public and the public was able to trust the government.” Nabarro later qualified his comments with the caveat that he advises all nations to adopt strategies that fit their current needs. (RELATED: Positive COVID-19 Cases Drop In No-Lockdown Sweden, Marking The Lowest Rate Since The Pandemic Began)

Sweden abruptly put an end to its light pandemic policy approach, adding restrictions in recent weeks. Swedish PM announced Dec. 11 a range of new restrictions for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, which would limit gatherings to eight or fewer. Similarly, high schools switched to online-only instruction Dec. 7.


Sweden also faces a shortage of nurses as case numbers rise, Bloomberg reported. Sineva Ribeiro, the chairwoman of the Swedish Association of Health, told Bloomberg that a shortage of specialty nurses existed prior to the pandemic. A broadcast TV survey in Sweden showed resignations are up in 13 out of 21 regions. In some areas, the number eclipses 500 per month, Bloomberg reported.

Piotr Nowak, a doctor at Karoslinka University Hospital in Stockholm, told The Wall Street Journal that he thought Sweden’s initial strategy was harmful. Given the recent outbreak, he also questioned the government’s foresight.

“Authorities chose a strategy totally different to the rest of Europe, and because of it the country has suffered a lot in the first wave,” Nowak said. “We have no idea how they failed to predict the second wave.”

Intensive Care Units in Stockholm were at 99% capacity for the first time Dec. 9, Newsweek reported. Bjorn Eriksson, the director of healthcare for the Stockholm region, said at a press conference detailing the crisis that this could have been caused by a lack of social distancing.

“It was exactly this development that we did not want to see. It shows that we Stockholmers have been crowded too much and had too many contacts outside the household where we left. Healthcare is now under so much pressure that there are no major margins in the healthcare system.”

Tegnell said at a Nov. 25 news conference amid a surge in cases that he has not seen indications of herd immunity, Fortune reported.

“The issue of herd immunity is difficult,” Tegnell said. “We see no signs of immunity in the population that are slowing down the infection right now.”

Sweden’s strategy didn’t render the nation immune to economic hardship amid the pandemic, but it did seem to lose less relative to other nations with more dramatic pandemic policies in place. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) decreased by 8.5% through the first half of 2020 and unemployment could rise to 10% by early 2021, according to economic data analyzed by The Wall Street Journal.

For context, U.S. GDP fell a record 33% in the second quarter of 2020 during lockdowns, reported Business Insider. U.S. unemployment rates spiked to an unprecedented 14.7% in April, according to federal data. France is projected to lose between 11.4-14.1% GDP amid the pandemic according to Statista Research. Their unemployment rate jumped to a two-year high of 9% in the third quarter, Reuters reported. The European Union overall was projected by Statista Research to shrink by approximately 7.4% — slightly less than Sweden’s loss — with the hardest-hit nations, Spain and the United Kingdom, seeing a projected decline of 12.4% and 10.3% respectively.

Sweden Finance Minister Magdalena Anderson told a news briefing Dec. 16 that the Swedish economic forecast defies what was previously predicted, according to Reuters. But she said the rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths could still impact the updated predictions.

“At the same time, both the increased infection rates and the measures taken to restrict that… are expected to dampen activity in the current quarter and at the start of next year.”

Sweden’s gross domestic product is now expected to shrink 2.9% overall in 2020. The number is down from the earlier prediction, which projected a 7% contraction, according to Reuters.

But some Swedish business owners are less optimistic. Jonas Hamlund, a restaurant owner told WSJ that the previous policy was “worse than a lockdown” and that it has been “a catastrophic year for everyone in the business.”

“They haven’t closed us so they don’t give us any substantial support, yet they say to people ‘don’t go to restaurants.'”