HENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images
- Sweden has been a closely-watched example of a country which decided to not to implement a lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The government said that theirs was a long-term strategy that would eventually bring better results than lockdowns, which have brought their own problems including mass unemployment.
- Initially, the policy looked like a clear failure, as the virus spread faster than in comparable nations.
- However, Sweden's cases have started to decline recently, bringing them more in line with countries that did lockdown.
- But on balance Sweden's metrics are still lagging its neighbors, suggesting that their strategy has yet to redeem itself.
- One expert said it would be "dangerous" to paint Sweden's response as a success.
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Sweden's coronavirus cases have fallen and remained down from their peak, returning it closer to comparable nations after its policy of avoiding sweeping lockdown policies had initially led to elevated deaths and infections.
However, although its numbers of daily deaths and new cases has declined from its own peak, they still compare poorly to its immediate neighbors, which took a harder line on the virus.
While most of Europe was confining citizens to their homes and closing businesses, Sweden relied on people to socially distance without drastically changing their lives.
It introduced only a handful of rules, like banning visits to nursing homes and gatherings of more than 50 people.
Related: Sweden used a controversial way to fight coronavirus
The logic was that a gentler approach would be more sustainable in the long-term, and avoid a dynamic whereby the virus was kept at bay only as long as the nation could withstand severe restrictions.
Initially, it did not look good — the number of Swedish people dying from the virus soared in the lax environment. Its per-capita death rate became one of the worst in the world by March, as other nations were taking desperate measures to rein in the virus.
More than four months later, Sweden is now on a trajectory much closer to that of other European nations. Its daily new infections have now fallen from a peak the end of June, and have stayed down since.
But its current position still doesn't look good compared to many European countries.
ENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images
Sweden's cases have only been down from their peak for just over a month.
In comparison, countries like the UK, Ireland, and Italy had their peaks earlier, in April and May, and cases have stayed down with no spikes since.
This is what Sweden looks like:
Compared to Italy:
Many other European countries follow the same pattern.
As well as having its decline in numbers later, Sweden also has had a less sharp decline overall.
Over the last seven days, the UK, with a population of 66 million, has seen an average of 818 new cases a day.
And Italy, with a population of 60 million, has seen an average of 208 cases a day.
While Sweden, with around 10 million people, has seen an average of 212 new cases a day.
That means Sweden's new daily coronavirus cases are, as a proportion of population, more than 1.5 times higher than those in the UK, and around six times higher than in Italy.
The UK and Italy were two of the worst-hit countries in Europe.
Sweden has also arrived at this point with a higher death rate than most countries in Europe.
David Lidstrom/Getty Images
Professor Luke O'Neill, an an immunologist at Ireland's Trinity College Dublin who is following European responses, previously told Business Insider that Sweden's total deaths are a strong sign that its approach failed.
"Everywhere is reopening now and we're on the same playing field. So that initial number of deaths is what counts. And there's a lot more deaths in Sweden."
Europe is worried about a second wave
As they reopen, many European countries have started to see cases rise. These include Belgium, Spain, France, Greece, and Denmark.
Others, like Germany, are warning that they are starting to experience a second wave.
Sweden is not in this situation.
But this position is not unique: other European countries, like Norway, Finland, Ireland, the UK, Italy, Portugal, have not seen any big spikes.
The countries listed above followed more conventional strategies — suggesting that Sweden's comparative lack of a resurgence is due to other factors.
And Sweden is still worried that a second wave could come. Local governments are warning of crowding in areas where people are gathering for summer holidays, and Stockholm is warning that its restaurants are too busy.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images
Prof. Jan Albert, an infectious diseases expert at Sweden's Karolinska Instituet, told Business Insider that it would be "dangerous to push the message" that Sweden is performing better than the rest of Europe.
He said that risk was especially high once schools and offices reopen after the country's long summer holidays.
"We definitely have come down from a peak, but whether we will see an increase again later in the year, especially when workplaces and schools open up again, we don't know."
"It's likely that we will see at least smaller outbreaks and possibly some kind of second wave or peak.
"No one can say for certain that there won't be a second wave in Sweden, or in other places."
Sweden's policies are still unusual
Sweden has these concerns without having eased its restrictions.
Its plan was designed to be long-term: it avoided a strict lockdown so the regime could continue for months on end without causing great damage, or demoralizing people so much that they gave up following the rules.
But now, because Sweden hasn't eased its rules even as other countries started to reopen, in some respects its restrictions are harsher than elsewhere.
Norway, for example, now allows some gatherings of up to 200 people, while Sweden is still at 50.
The one area that Sweden remains an outlier is its policy on masks.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images
Most countries are encouraging citizens to wear them, and many have made them mandatory in shops and public transport.
Sweden has no such requirements and its Public Health Agency says that face masks are "not needed in everyday life."
Swedish officials argue that time will prove their strategy correct, provided the nation avoids the spikes that can come with easing restrictions, or fatigued citizens deciding to ignore them.
As many Swedish experts previously told Business Insider, whether the strategy was the right call will only be known in time.
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