Throughout the COVID19 Crisis Sweden has been held out as the counterexample to policies pursued throughout Europe and North America: no lockdowns, accept a high death toll and push on to herd immunity. The picture has been mixed. Sweden has a dramatically higher death toll than neighboring Scandinavian countries to which it is geographically proximate and demographically similar. But it has still fared better than hard-hit countries like Italy, France and the United Kingdom, which eventually pushed hard lockdowns to stem the spread of COVID.
But the real story is buried down at the end of this recent article in the Times.
The Times looked at mobility data from Google and found that Swedes were going to restaurants, shops and recreational areas at comparable rates to residents of other European countries. Buried even further down we find that Sweden’s GDP is expected to contract by 7 to 10 percent this year, again on par with estimates in other European countries.
In other words, the idea that Sweden was going to plow head on into the epidemic, have a high mortality but not wreck its economy really isn’t true on either score. Despite what seems like a dramatically different policy, the reality on the ground sounds fairly similar. Economic impact seems comparable. Any sense that countries could avoid the economic calamity with the kind of ‘just man up’ approach Trump world is encouraging doesn’t seem to have saved Sweden from economic calamity. Individual Swedes also seem to have ramped down economic and social activity nearly as much as residents of other countries.
There are differences. Total excess mortality in Denmark is 5% above normal. Norway and Finland have no statistical excess mortality (if COVID fatalities are few enough they can be offset by fewer car crashes, accidents, violent crimes). Meanwhile Sweden has suffered 27% excess mortality. Those are pretty clear deaths by policy – roughly 3,300 people through early May. But that is still much less than the UK (67%) and Spain (60%).
One thing we can draw from this is that we shouldn’t assume more certainty than is warranted about the effects of different mitigation policies and approaches. Chance and luck play a significant role, at least at first. Culture and demography play important roles in sometimes unpredictable ways. Across the world spread within households has been a major driver of the epidemic. A high percentage of Swedes live alone.
But the biggest takeaway is that we shouldn’t assume that government mandates – either imposing or releasing strictures – are the sole or even largest determinant of social activity or outbreaks. Nor is all skirting of social distancing and civic responsibility done by loudmouths with assault weapons. Even after an area reopens social and economic activity may remain dramatically constrained. Indeed, there’s some preliminary evidence that over the last month social mobility – as measured by anonymized cellphone data – has been increasing in lockdown states while the change hasn’t been as dramatic as some have expected in states that are pushing hard to ‘reopen’.