Sweden ‘vindicated’ as Covid cases hit new low. Really?

Sweden ‘vindicated’ as Covid cases hit new low. Really? By Oliver Moody.

Sweden has registered its lowest rate of positive coronavirus tests yet even after its testing regime was expanded to record levels in what one health official said was a vindication of its relatively non-intrusive Covid-19 strategy.

Over the past week the country carried out more than 120,000 tests, of which only 1.3 per cent identified the disease.

At the height of the pandemic the proportion was 19 per cent.

That only tells us that Sweden wasn’t testing nearly enough, and now Sweden is testing more but it is still insufficient. In Australia to date, the test positivity rate is 0.4% (and 0.8% in Victoria).

Johan Carlson, an epidemiologist and director of the public health agency, said that Swedes seemed to be benefiting from widespread immunity because of the decision not to order the population to stay at home during the first wave.

Widespread immunity eh? Then they won’t be able to catch it again and there won’t be another wave in Sweden, will there? The anti-lockdown sites in the US hold up Sweden as an example of what to do, and have been saying since April that Sweden is on the verge of herd immunity. So close!

Seriously though, less than 4% of Swedes have ever been infected with covid to date. (86,000 confirmed cases out of a population of 10 million is just 0.86%. Unbiased surveys in western countries find confirmed cases are at least a quarter of all infections.) Normally herd immunity requires 70% – 80% to be infected and to have built up immunity, and for especially infectious diseases like measles, 95% is required.

“Widespread immunity” at 4% is magical thinking. Maybe T-cells? Maybe the testing data is wildly wrong? The ideologues wish, and prey on the ignorant.

“Our strategy was consistent and sustainable,” Professor Carlson said. “We probably have a lower risk of [the virus] spreading than other countries.”

“Sustainable?” Let’s have a look at the data:



The daily rate of infection has been brought down from 1500 at its peak to about 200 a day, where it looks pretty flat. The death rate is about 0.5% (1 in 200) of confirmed cases in all western countries with current medical treatments and the typical range of ages being infected, so the death rate in Sweden is currently about one person per day. This is a big improvement, well done.

But if Professor Carlson finds that sustainable, then good for him. In Australia, 200 cases per day is not acceptable. Victoria already is down from a peak of almost 800 cases per day to about 50 cases a day. Yet the severe Victorian lockdown continues, aiming for 5 per day or less. NSW is less than 5 per day, and the rest of Australia is at zero.

If Sweden continues at the current infection rates, to get from the current 86,000 cases to the herd immunity level of 7,000,000+ infections, at 200 per day, will take about 94 years. At current death rates, that will incur about another 34,000 deaths. But of course, an individual’s immunity to covid probably only lasts a few months or a couple of years, so herd immunity will never be reached. It’s a fantasy.

The Swedish confirmed cases above tells an interesting story. See how it went up, peaked in late June, then fell? What happened in late June? Sweden buckled. Politicians took over from the scientists in late June to set policy — the death toll was too high. Or maybe it was because the rest of Europe, which was mainly virus free at that point, told Sweden it didn’t want any travelers from Sweden, thank you very much. In any case, from late June:

Stefan Lofven, the centre-left prime minister, said the time had come for a shift in its approach.

“The crisis has highlighted the shortcomings in our society,” he said. “We have thousands of dead. Now the question is how Sweden should change, not if.” …

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has copped much criticism for his advice on the crisis, and acknowledges there have been ‘too many deaths’ … and Sweden should have responded more aggressively to the pandemic.

The response of the Swedish politicians was to increase the lockdown to reduce the death rate. The infection rate promptly fell, like it does everywhere else when lockdown increases, except for a certain superpower that leaves its borders open and is continually importing more virus.

The anti-lockdown crew likes to cite Sweden as having “no lockdown”, as if lockdown is a binary thing — you either are or you aren’t. So mischievous.

Let’s look at the actual lockdown measures in place in Sweden, via that secret source of information, Wikipedia.

First of all, more than half the households in Sweden are single person. This is unusually high. Households are easily the biggest source of spreading the virus, which spreads best with prolonged contact indoors. Because so much of its population is “socially distanced” before the pandemic even begins, Sweden starts well ahead in lockdown severity — it is permanently partly locked down. To compare Sweden to other countries without mentioning this fact is a little mischievous.

Then there are the actual lockdown measures in Sweden:

[In March] following agency advice, the government has passed legislation limiting freedom of assembly by temporarily banning gatherings of over 50 individuals, banning people from visiting nursing homes, and physically closing secondary schools and universities. Primary schools have remained open, in part to avoid healthcare workers staying home with their children.

The Public Health Agency issued recommendations to: if possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and for people above 70 to stay at home, as much as possible. Those with even minimal symptoms that could be caused by COVID-19 are recommended to stay home. The karensdag, or initial day without paid sick-leave, has been removed by the government and the length of time one can stay home with pay without a doctor’s note has been raised from 7 to 21 days. …

On 18 March, the Health Agency recommended that everyone should avoid travelling within the country. …

Overall, travel from the Stockholm region had decreased by 80–90%, and the number of citizens of Stockholm travelling to popular holiday destinations like Gotland and the ski resorts in Åre had fallen with more than 90%. … The restrictions on domestic travel were somewhat softened on 13 May, allowing for travels equalling one to two hours from home by car would be allowed under some circumstances to which Löfvén referred to as ‘common sense’, such as not risking to burden healthcare in other regions, keeping contact with others low and not travelling to visit new social contacts, the elderly or those at risk of severe disease. On 4 June, the government announced that the restrictions on domestic travel were to be lifted on 13 June, allowing everyone to freely travel in the country if they were without symptoms and rules on social distancing were followed.

Sounds like pretty much any western lockdown, but without the compulsion. The Swedish government wisely left it up to people to figure out the details for themselves what was needed, rather than enforcing blunt rules using the police — let alone a socialist leader’s curfew. Kids don’t easily catch it or pass it on, so primary schools stayed open.

Notice the mobility data above, which is similar to western countries “with” lockdown. Likewise the fall in GDP:

Sweden’s GDP fell 8.6% during the second quarter of the year…

The fall is sharper than its neighbours – Denmark registered a 7.4% fall, and Finland a 3.2% fall. …

But better than some that copped larger early infections:

The euro zone’s economy contracted by 12.1% in the second quarter when compared to the previous quarter and by 11.9% across the broader European Union.

Australia’s GDP dropped about 7%. The US GDP dropped by just over 8% that quarter (which they report annualized, at 33%).

On mobility and GDP data, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish the Swedish “non-lockdown” from the “lockdowns” of other western countries. It is a pity the anti-lockdown websites didn’t pay more attention to facts like this before misleading so many people.

Where the Swedish approach differs is primarily in treating their citizens as adults, able to make their own decisions and apply the necessary discretion. Victoria’s blunt approach backed up by police action is the opposite.

But then there are the costs of Sweden’s approach. A lot of people got sick and some died, and that could have been prevented. Judging by the mobility and GDP data, the economic cost of some extra lockdown severity like elsewhere might have been quite small. No wonder Anders Tegnell said in late June that there had been ‘too many deaths’ … and Sweden should have responded more aggressively to the pandemic.

Death statistics from covid are rubbery, and it might be preferable to use excess deaths. Nonetheless, here are the official figures for deaths per million population, and the approximate current daily confirmed infection rate for a few countries from Worldometer:

  • Sweden: 578 deaths per million, and 200 infections per day
  • Spain: 635 deaths per million, and 10,000 infections per day
  • UK: 612 deaths per million, and 2,500 infections per day
  • USA: 592 deaths per million, and 35,000 infections per day
  • Brazil: 609 deaths per million, and 35,000 infections per day
  • Germany: 112 deaths per million, and 1,800 infections per day
  • Denmark: 109 deaths per million, and 250 infections per day
  • Norway: 49 deaths per million, and 100 infections per day
  • Finland: 61 deaths per million, and 40 infections per day
  • Australia: 31 deaths per million, and 50 infections per day
  • New Zealand: 5 deaths per million, and 3 infections per day
  • Taiwan: 0.3 deaths per million, and 1 infection per day

Those countries where the infection rate is still high will inevitably suffer many more deaths, while those with low rates will not. There are no figures yet for the years of life lost due to damage from covid in those who recovered.

Sweden’s performance isn’t very impressive, is it? Similar falls in mobility and GDP, lots of deaths, ongoing infection. The only upside is the voluntary nature of its lockdown.

Australia’s leadership explicitly rejected the Swedish approach because of its high death and sickness rates. Australia now has much a lower infection rate than Sweden. large parts of the country with no infections (and almost no lockdown), a similar hit to GDP as Sweden, and far fewer deaths. Swedish approach? No thanks.

Then there’s New Zealand and Taiwan, which immediately went for elimination. They have far better performances than Sweden, with less of a hit to GDP and mobility — because they have been essentially free of covid for much of the last six months. Almost no deaths. These are the countries to be emulating.

It’s a shame, however, that Victoria didn’t take note of Sweden’s more adult approach to applying restrictions, and be a little more like Sweden.

hat-tip Stephen Neil