Was Sweden always right about Covid?
To understand Sweden, you need to understand a word that is hard to explain, let alone translate: lagom. This means, in effect, “perfect-simple”: neither too much nor too little. People who are lagom don’t show off or make a fuss: they blend right in – and that’s considered a virtue.
Essays are written about why lagom sums up a certain Swedish mindset – that it’s bad to stand out, to think of yourself as better, or to be an exception. That’s why it’s so strange that during the lockdowns Sweden has become the defiant outlier of the world.
The Swedes saw it the other way around. They kept calm and carried on: the lockdown was an extreme, draconian and untested experiment. Locking everyone up, keeping kids out of school, suspending civil liberties, sending the police after dog walkers – and calling it “caution”? Anders Tegnell, the Swedish state epidemiologist, never spoke of a Swedish “experiment”. He said all along that he couldn’t recommend a public health intervention that had never been proven.
Tegnell also made another point: he wasn’t pretending to be right. It would take years, he said, to see who had jumped the right way. His calculation was that, on a society-wide basis, the collateral damage of lockdowns would outweigh the good they do. But you would only know that if it was after a few years. You should be looking at cancer diagnosis, hospital waiting lists, damage to education and, yes, counting Covid deaths. Almost two years later, we can examine the first indications.
The problem with lockdowns is that no one is watching the whole society footage. Professor Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College London once admitted this as a side note. “We do not take into account the broader social and economic costs of repression,” they wrote in a supposed lockdown assessment, “which will be high.” But how high? And were they a price to pay?
As Sweden scraps all national Covid restrictions, it emerges with one of the lowest Covid death rates in Europe: the rate is 1,614 per million people, just over half the number of Great Britain (2,335). Given that our death rates were comparable at the start (both among the worst in the world), it is difficult to argue that there was a demographic force that meant Covid was never going to spread in Sweden.