In the messy panoply of global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sweden stands out. Unlike its Nordic and European peers, Sweden decided early on for a "soft" approach, forgoing lockdowns for subtle changes to commerce and entertainment, voluntary mitigation guidelines, and encouraging working from home. "This is what has happened," economic correspondent Peter S. Goodman reports in The New York Times: "Not only have thousands more people died than in neighboring countries that imposed lockdowns, but Sweden's economy has fared little better."
"They literally gained nothing," Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, tells the Times. "It's a self-inflicted wound, and they have no economic gains." Sweden did see slightly less contraction in the first quarter, but now its economic pain is essentially equal to its Nordic neighbors. And Norway, which "was not only quick to impose an aggressive lockdown, but early to relax it as the virus slowed," is actually "expected to see a more rapid economic turnaround," Goodman reports.
Ironically, Bloomberg News reports, the social distancing requirements in Sweden are now more stringent than in Denmark, Norway, and Finland, all of which opted for strict lockdowns early on. Sweden's 5,420 COVID-19 deaths may not seem like much compared with 130,000 in the U.S., but per capita that works out to 40 percent more fatalities than in the U.S. and 12 times more than Norway, seven times more than Finland, and six times more than Denmark, the Times notes.
Johan Carlson, the head of Sweden's public health agency, said Tuesday that his country's declining rate of infections and patients in intensive care "is an effect of us keeping up the social distancing," though herd immunity "could definitely be playing a part in areas where we've had contagion." And Sweden's state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, maintains that his strategy is still more sustainable and will pay off in the long run.
And maybe it will. But three months into the pandemic, "Sweden's grim result — more death, and nearly equal economic damage — suggests that the supposed choice between lives and paychecks is a false one," Goodman writes. "It is simplistic to portray government actions such as quarantines as the cause of economic damage. The real culprit is the virus itself," and "a failure to impose social distancing can cost lives and jobs at the same time."