It’s now clear we can manage the virus without extreme measures.
This pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. The Swedes always accepted that they would see a higher rate of mortality in the spring and summer than countries which locked down early. The argument against lockdown was that every country would see a similar number of deaths in the long run and that it wasn’t worth disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods in an extreme way by quarantining the entire population.
If you speak of the Swedish, no-lockdown approach to Covid-19 without disparagement, a horde of midwits will descend on you to say that, actually, Sweden has had a large number of Covid-related deaths compared to its immediate neighbours. Though you can explain that Sweden has had a lower death rate (per million people) than the UK, they will insist you only compare Sweden to the rest of Scandinavia.
But you don’t need to compare Sweden to any country to make the crucial observation that lockdowns are not necessary. Lockdowns were introduced because it was believed that they were the only way to prevent cases spiralling out of control, leading to most of the population being infected, health services being overwhelmed and 0.5 to one per cent of the population potentially dying of the disease.
This was not an unreasonable prediction when it was first made. The coronavirus is highly infectious and is several times more lethal than the flu. Case numbers were growing exponentially in March, as were deaths, and Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College model predicted over 250,000 deaths in Britain without lockdown, even with some social-distancing measures.
But when academics adapted Ferguson’s model to Sweden, it predicted 96,000 deaths by the end of June. Ferguson himself said on 25 April that Sweden’s daily deaths would ‘increase day by day. It is clearly a decision for the Swedish government whether it wishes to tolerate that.’
In fact, the daily number of deaths had already peaked by then – barely a week after they peaked in Britain – and the cumulative total currently stands at less than 6,000. When a prediction is so far off, it should command attention.
Let’s remember how the Swedish approach was reported at the time. A Guardian headline said on 30 March: ‘“They are leading us to catastrophe”: Sweden’s coronavirus stoicism begins to jar.’ The Sun on 1 April said Sweden’s ‘refusal to enter coronavirus lockdown leaving schools and pubs open “will lead to catastrophe”, doctors warn’. And Time magazine warned on 9 April that: ‘Sweden’s relaxed approach to the coronavirus could already be backfiring.’ The report also quoted a head doctor at a major hospital in Sweden saying ‘the current approach will “probably end in a historical massacre”’.
Various post-hoc justifications have been put forward for why things didn’t turn out as expected. Since none of them was mentioned by the doomsters back in March, you have to wonder whether this eagerness to show that there is something special and unique about Sweden reflects a genuine yearning for the truth or a pathological desire to promote lockdown at all costs.
The most stupid of these excuses is that Sweden has a low population density (59 people per square mile). Forgive me for insulting your intelligence but it seems some people need to hear this: Swedish people are not evenly spread out across the country. Scotland also has a low population density (65 people per square mile) because most of the country is wilderness. This has not stopped Glasgow becoming a Covid-19 hotspot.
The country with the highest per capita death rate from Covid is Peru, which has a population density only slightly higher than Sweden at 65 people per square mile. Brazil and Chile have also had more deaths per capita than Sweden, despite having low population densities of 65 and 60 people per square mile respectively. Like Sweden, these countries have vast areas in which nobody lives. There is no reason to think that this should help combat the coronavirus.