In the US– and I’m sure throughout the rest of the world– there is a group of people that have interesting theories when it comes to COVID-19. One of their most mainstream ideas is that the best response to COVID-19 is for governments to have a very light hand. They oppose lockdowns, mask mandates, and most government restrictions to slow the spread of the virus (the “standard response”). They have a handful of reasons for this. Generally, they think the virus isn’t that dangerous and the costs of the standard response– generally economic– is too great to justify. Many will often even argue that the laissez-faire approach is better because it allows a country to achieve herd immunity much quicker. They have other arguments too, but these are the ones we can empirically analyze.
All three of these justifications are wrong. They will often point to Sweden for validation, but Sweden’s response has been a disaster. There is a vast chasm between their confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million and their nomadic neighbors and the hit their economy took appears to be worse. On top of that, there is little reason to believe they achieved herd immunity.
The death toll
When comparing Sweden to other countries their Nordic neighbors are an obvious control group. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden share similar economies, climates, sizes, cultures and geographies. Denmark, Finland, and Norway all took the standard response seen throughout the developed world. They serve as an experimental group of sorts while Denmark is like our control group. No matter how you look at it, our experimental group saw many less deaths.
The economic cost
Another popular argument against the standard COVID-19 response was the economic cost. “We can’t shutdown the economy because the economic cost will be too high.” Job losses, and businesses failures were often cited. GDP growth allows us to compare the macro health of each economy.
Turns out Sweden took a bigger economic hit than their neighbors. The Swedish economy shrank 8.6% from the first quarter of 2020 to the second quarter without seasonal adjustments. The Danish economy shrank only 7.4% and the Finnish economy shrank only 3.2%. We still don’t have the data from Norway.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. One of the counters to the above argument was that containing COVID-19 was best for the economy. If people didn’t think it was safe to go outside and engage in economic activity they wouldn’t. The data appears to tell that story. The countries which had higher death tolls are the same countries that had the worst economic contractions.
Herd immunity and second waves
Okay, so maybe the response up until now has been worse but what about going forward. Could Sweden have front loaded the pain and achieved herd immunity? “Maybe they had a worse first wave, but they won’t have a second wave unlike their neighbors!” There’s a grain of truth to that idea. Many European countries either are in second waves now or appear to be heading that way. Even the other Nordic countries are seeing an increase in cases. But so is Sweden! If they had herd immunity we wouldn’t expect to see an almost 50% increase in new cases over the last two weeks.
In fairness to Sweden– and its defenders–, this all could change. I’ve argued a lot recently on Twitter that we should be careful in drawing conclusions when it comes to how the US handled COVID-9 versus other countries. Why shouldn’t the same apply to Sweden? After all, in a year we could look back and see the rest of the Nordic countries caught up to Sweden’s death.
Two big differences. First, the US is very different from other countries in terms of size, border control, climate, AC penetration, ect. This makes it hard to have a de facto control. There are many differences between the US and Europe which make the comparisons questionable and thereby harder to draw sound conclusions. This limitation is much less of a problem between Sweden and the other Nordic countries.
Second, the differences between the US and Europe are clearly changing. The US is trending in the right direction while Europe isn’t. Sweden and the other Nordic countries appear to be still experiencing similar trends in the wrong direction like the rest of Europe (yes, Europe did not have the perfect model response some people pretend they did).
Exit quote: The science doesn’t appear to support Swedish herd immunity.