Sweden, Sweden, Sweden!

The data on Sweden and Covid-19 don't fit the media narrative.

This is a persistent right-wing media narrative that Sweden proves that past lockdowns didn’t work and that really, we need to just go one with life in the face of the pandemic. While I am by no means going to try and exhaustively research this topic, I will note that a lot of readily available data undercuts this notion.

(I would note that James Joyner wrote about this back in May and June, as I did in June as well).

Let’s start with a comparison to their Scandinavian neighbors (all data from Our World in Data).

First, cumulative cases per million people:

Or, how about cumulative confirmed deaths per million?

One of these thing is not like the others.

Another way of looking at it would be over time, and we can see here what happened to the trends in Finland and Norway after lockdowns (late March/April):

Also, not shutting down did not avert economic difficulties for the country, as the Business Insider reported back in August: Sweden’s GDP slumped 8.6% in Q2, more sharply than its neighbors despite its no-lockdown policy.

Sweden’s GDP fell more than its Nordic neighbours in the second quarter of 2020, dealing another blow to its lockdown-free coronavirus strategy.

Sweden’s official statistics agency said that Sweden’s GDP fell by 8.6% in Q2.

In comparison, Finland’s statistics body said that its Q2 GDP was down 3.2%, and Denmark’s said GDP there was down 7.4%.

Going beyond immediate neighbors and comparing the whole EU, Sweden does worse than almost everyone else in regards to deaths (and note Italy in particular was hit early and did not initially lockdown):

It is a bit more middle-of-the-road in confirmed cases:

I am not saying that these charts and other bits of evidence proves conclusively that Sweden’s approach was inferior to other countries (but it sure does suggest that it was) . At a minimun, however, they really do significantly undercut the simplistic argument that continues to circulate in right-wing circles in the US that Sweden proves that we can just throw the door open to everything and pretend that we do not need to engage in mitigation.

The sub-regional comparisons to the other two Scandinavian countries are especially interesting as they control, to a degree, for things like serious cultural deviations. In that comparison, Sweden did worse both in terms of public health and in terms of the economy. That suggests that there is a heck of a lot more to the story than just a simplistic assertion about opening v. closing.

Let me also note that the choice is not, any never has been 100% open v. 100% closed. That is, quite simply, a lie that no one should fall for.

Regardless, the data are clear: Sweden did not do better than countries that had lockdowns, nor did they do the same. On balance, they did worse, at times much worse.

And, to be clear: this is not the final word on this subject as a lot of research will need to be done to fully assess the impacts of various global policy responses to this pandemic.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    I don’t mean to be contrary, but Italy, which served as a model of virus containment last spring, is currently undergoing a surge in Covid-19 cases. The Italian government is trying to reinstitute bar and restaurant closings at 6 p.m., and the response has been rioting, lootings, and attacks on police stations. I posted a link to the Daily Beast article about it in today’s open forum.

    This is awful. I’ve said it before, but there’s a good chance people are going to become so nihilistic and so disinclined to believe anything any government says that they’ll either openly rebel or they’ll just say “the hell with it; I’ll do what I want since the virus will kill me anyway.”

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Typo alert:

    Also, not shutting down did avert economic difficulties for the country, as the Business Insider reported back in August: Sweden’s GDP slumped 8.6% in Q2, more sharply than its neighbors despite its no-lockdown policy.

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  3. Northerner says:

    How similar are the cultures, health care systems, population densities, city sizes etc of Sweden, Norway and Finland? My guess is they’re very similar, making the regional comparisons the best. Still, I’ve known a number of Norwegians who dislike Sweden and say its very different than Norway, so it’d be nice to have some confirmation.

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  4. Teve says:

    minor typo

    (I would note that James Joyner wrote about this back in May and June, as did in June as well).

  5. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @Teve: Oh well,

    100% open v. 1005 closed

    We love you, Dr. T, and understand you have busy days.

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  6. Teve says:

    @gVOR08: it’s assistance, not criticism. 😀

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  7. Kathy says:

    Math is no friend of the right-wing populist. They see Sweden has under 150,000 cases, so they conclude they’re doing well, not taking into account Sweden’s small population (aprox. 10.3 million). They don’t understand percentages or proportionality.

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  8. Jen says:

    I tried to correct one of our resident contrarians who was insisting that Sweden was a model to follow. It is indeed a right-wing media narrative (a wrong one), that is persistent and they seem impervious to facts.

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  9. Scott says:

    @Jen: Don’t worry. Soon the narrative will be: Universal healthcare and democratic socialism doesn’t work.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: I saw that one too but it didn’t bother me because I didn’t have to read it 3 times to make sure it was contradicting itself. I try not to be pedantic just for sake pedantry.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    When James noted COVID deaths had passed U. S. deaths in WWI, I noted for further reference that WIKI says the U. S. lost 419,400 souls from WWII. Someone on TV last night said our COVID death rate exceeds the rate of U. S. war deaths due to WWII. Said that COVID deaths so far this year exceed war deaths in 1944. I’m sure glad Biden wants the job, COVID’s going to be badly out of control by the time he takes office.

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  12. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Funny, isn’t it? Mass deaths are actually bad for GDP growth. Who’d a thunk it?

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  13. @OzarkHillbilly: @OzarkHillbilly: @gVOR08: Thanks, all.

    I did write this one in a bit of a hurry and crossed my fingers when I hit “publish”

    🙂

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  14. @Teve: It is definitely assistance.

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  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    The “Daily confirmed covid-19 deaths per million” graph is the one that right wingers are pointing to, it seems to me. Things were harrowing for a while, but now the death rate in Sweden is about the same as in Finland or Norway.

    Of course, this argument volunteers fellow Americans (or Swedes) for death. I’m pretty sure they aren’t volunteering their own parents or grandparents or favorite Aunt May. They think that somehow “someone else” will be the one to die. Those folks in the big city, or that work in the meat packing plant, or …

    This is a very human thing, I think. It’s because of specific leadership (or lack thereof) that this human tendency has coalesced in one party.

  16. Grewgills says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    As others regularly note, it also leaves out chronic Covid induced post Covid ailments. They seem to think that death is the only possible negative outcome from Covid despite plentiful evidence to the contrary.

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  17. .DrDaveT says:

    @Jen:

    It is indeed a right-wing media narrative (a wrong one), that is persistent and they seem impervious to facts.

    This redundant sentence brought to you redundantly by the Department of Redundancy Department.

    1
  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Speaking only for myself, of course, my personal preference would be for the people who work in the meat packing plants to not be the ones who die from Covid-19. I like eating meat and would definitely feel a lacking in my life if supplies were to shorten beyond what they already have.

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  19. Blue Galangal says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Of course, this argument volunteers fellow Americans (or Swedes) for death. I’m pretty sure they aren’t volunteering their own parents or grandparents or favorite Aunt May.

    Sure they are. If the past year has taught us nothing else, it’s that Republicans just don’t care. They literally don’t care about anything but $$ and power. They could give a flying f**k about Aunt May.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    Part of why Sweden has managed only as badly as they have, rather than much, much worse, is that they have universal health care and a robust safety net. People are getting the care that is available without ruining their families. That is part of the Swedish Way for handling Covid.

    Given how many people die of preventable diseases in this country, how long would it take for the extra deaths from a Swedish approach to Covid to be balanced out by better health care if we really went the Swedish Way?

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  21. steve says:

    IIRC correctly Sweden has one of the highest rates of single person households in the first world. That should also help them.

    Steve

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  22. Ken_L says:

    The fact there were limited compulsory limitations on people’s movements in Sweden doesn’t mean they didn’t comply with extensive voluntary limitations. It’s been widely reported that in fact the government recommended a raft of measures similar to those enforced in many other countries, and Swedes largely followed the recommendations.

    This is the exact opposite of the attitude common among Trump Republicans, that they ain’t gonna tolerate any goddam changes in their usual way of life, because that would mean the virus had won.

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  23. James Joyner says:

    @Ken_L:

    The fact there were limited compulsory limitations on people’s movements in Sweden doesn’t mean they didn’t comply with extensive voluntary limitations. It’s been widely reported that in fact the government recommended a raft of measures similar to those enforced in many other countries, and Swedes largely followed the recommendations.

    And, indeed, that was the whole point of the Swedish model. They’re not governed by morons. Rather, those in charge believed the culture would simultaneously revolt against being told what to do and yet self-police into doing the right thing.

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  24. Torbjørn Jensen says:

    Just a Scandinavian reaction to the

    comparison to their Scandinavian neighbors

    You missed one Scandinavian neighbor, Denmark, and included a Nordic neighbor, Finland, instead.

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  25. Scott says:

    @Jay L Gischer: When my Freedom Caucus/Tea Party congressman started yapping about herd immunity, I asked him when he was going to volunteer him and his family to go to a COVID party or something in order to personally contribute to the country’s herd immunity. I didn’t get an answer.

  26. @Torbjørn Jensen: Thanks for the correction. As I noted above, I wrote this is a bit of a rush and was trying to remember the difference between Nordic (which is what I originally used) and Scandanavian (which I went with), but was wrong in my deployment (I also almost included Denmark).

    I should have just skipped the descriptor!

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  27. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Ken_L: To quote the title of a Kojak episode, “Death is not a passing grade.”

  28. Northerner says:

    @Gustopher:

    I wonder what the chances are of the same conservatives who applaud Sweden’s approach to Covid also applauding Sweden’s approach to public health care?

    I think you’re very right, having public healthcare gives a country much more flexibility in how to approach a pandemic.

  29. Anthony Capitan says:

    The global, human cost of lock-downs surpasses the costs of not locking down by an order of magnitude. It’s unbearable that so many people supposedly concerned with statistics and the human suffering of COVID-19 refuse to see that.

    https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/covid-19-puts-265-million-risk-hunger-pandemic-experts-say
    https://www.city-journal.org/deadly-cost-of-lockdown-policies

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  30. Ken_L says:

    Your first link opens (my emphasis):

    About 265 million people around the world are expected to face acute food insecurity this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a World Food Program Analysis.

    At no stage does it make any argument about the comparative impact of lockdowns v no lockdowns. Its single mention of lockdowns is to note they are one of several factors causing hardship. I didn’t bother looking at your link to a right-wing propaganda site.

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  31. Keef says: