While most countries dealt with the COVID pandemic by mandating strict regulations to minimize the spread of the virus, Sweden chose a different approach. Its response emphasized the development of natural (post-infection) immunity in an open society. The nation’s public health officials refused strict lockdowns, kept the country’s businesses and restaurants open, had some of the lowest mask usage anywhere, and children under 16 continued to attend school in person.
In the US, by contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health pushed for lockdowns while also attacking experts who advocated more open approaches to COVID management. Any opposition to this medical and public health establishment narrative was castigated and censored, cutting off what should have been vigorous debate and analysis. Instead, businesses, gyms, and nightclubs shut down; and schools shifted from in-person to remote learning, which disrupted students’ lives and thwarted their learning and social development.
Sweden’s “light touch,” as it was referred to by scientists and policy makers, was deemed a disaster by most establishment news outlets: “Sweden Has Become the World’s Cautionary Tale,” noted the New York Times; “Sweden’s COVID Infections Among Highest in Europe, With ‘No Sign of Decrease,’” Retuers reported. Medical journals, including BMJ, published equally damning assessments of Sweden’s response. Critical news stories and medical opinions were especially common in the first year of the pandemic.
However, over time, Sweden’s approach seems to have proven itself. As James Billot reported for Unherd in March 2023, multiple studies now show Sweden’s excess death rate during the pandemic to have been among Europe’s lowest. In a little-known 2021 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, researchers found that among 11 wealthy peer nations, Sweden was the only one with no excess mortality among individuals under 75. Excess mortality figures include all deaths, whether from COVID, the indirect effects of COVID (i.e. people avoiding the hospital during a heart attack), or the side effects of lockdowns.
Using data from the Human Mortality Database, Kaiser compared excess mortality rates for the five years before the pandemic and excess mortality in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. Sweden had zero excess mortality in 2020 among people younger than 75. According to a 2021 research letter, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there wasn’t a single COVID death among Swedish children.
Sweden did experience COVID deaths. For instance, during the pandemic’s earliest phase, almost ninety percent of Swedes who died of COVID were age 70 or older. As Emma Frans reported for The Conversation, “In late 2020, the Corona Commission, an independent committee appointed by the government to evaluate the Swedish pandemic response, found the government and the Public Health Agency had largely failed in their ambition to protect the elderly.” The commission concluded that tougher measures, including quarantine for those returning from high-risk areas and a temporary ban on entry to Sweden, should have been implemented early in the pandemic.
Yet, Sweden seems to have avoided the collateral damage that lockdowns wreaked in other countries. The Kaiser studies also measured the most pernicious effects of lockdowns including loss of social support, and a related rise in deaths from alcohol and drug abuse. Even before the pandemic, “deaths of despair” were already high in the US, according to a pair of Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton.
The American public health establishment and many in corporate media continue to view Sweden’s pandemic plan as “controversial.” Yet, the data show that the US might have been better off with Sweden’s “light touch” and that our public health officials should include this thinking in response to future pandemics.
Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, “What Sweden Got Right About COVID,” Washington Monthly, April 19, 2022.
Emma Frans, “Did Sweden’s Controversial COVID Strategy Pay Off? In Many Ways It Did – but It Let the Elderly Down,” The Conversation, August 12, 2022.
James Billot, “Norway’s Top Epidemiologist: Sweden Handled COVID Well—Hiding Insecurity by Scolding Sweden,” Unherd, March 16, 2023.
Student Researcher: Kaylie Liu (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)