The Mundus Take: Sweden’s corona strategy revisited

Shortly after the horror of corona swept over Europe in the Spring it became clear that Sweden’s response was an outlier. The Swedish state refused to order its citizens to lockdown inside their houses. It allowed public gatherings and kept schools open. As other countries, first in Europe, and then the USA and elsewhere began to suffer from the pandemic, each adopting their own response individuals, institutions and governments reacted. Sweden’s corona strategy was seen frequently through the lens of other countries’ responses, not infrequently looking to justify a background political position. The problem with this was that Swedish problems were not understood given the facts on the ground. Neither were the Swedish solutions. 

Some looked at the Swedish ‘control experiment’ with curiosity. Could anything be learned? Others looked at it with horror. On March 30, the Guardian ran a headline, ‘They are leading us to catastrophe’. Similar headlines and commentary were repeated over and over by the global media. The narrative became that Sweden’s strategy to fight corona was crazy-brave in terms of its likely health outcomes. Crazy implied that it could never work. Brave meant that it put too much trust in people. Added to that was the kicker that it was pointless, because the Swedish economy was going to crash, just like everywhere else.

We want to make it clear that we feel that a terrible tragedy has struck Sweden, particularly in the nursing homes, and that preventable mistakes were made. Nonetheless, Mundus has argued consistently against this overall narrative. Our first issue with this perspective was that it ignored the entire rationale for the approach. Sweden did not make a direct trade off between lives and livelihoods. The strategy was human-centric, rather than economic. Tegnell and the Public Health Agency argued that it was more sustainable for people to maintain social distancing than a lockdown. This gave individuals flexibility to deal with situations in both their personal and work lives. 

Our second challenge to the narrative was that it was not so crazy. Our view was that the authorities had good reason to believe that when presented with good arguments, Swedes could follow guidelines given to them. While not everyone was going to behave with respect to their neighbours, enough Swedes would to drop the R0 below 1.0.

Fig. 1 Number of dead per day

As the charts showing the number of new cases, intensive care patients and ultimately deaths show, Sweden has gotten on top of the first wave without anything approaching a lockdown. 

But our third, and biggest criticism was that such a narrative was very likely to be wrong on fact. As late as July 27, USA Today published an op ed by 25 Swedish scientists which stated that “there are no indications that the Swedish economy has fared better than in many other countries”. But as the ‘flash GDP’ result of -8.6% shows, Sweden’s has actually performed significantly better than most other western countries. The next best outcome, so far, in Europe has been Germany, whose economy shrank by 10.1%. Adding the 2% that Germany shrunk in the first quarter means that its economy is now 12% smaller than it was late last year. In comparison, Sweden’s economy actually grew a fraction (0.1%) in the first quarter, which means that Sweden’s economy has shrunk ‘by only 8%’ over the 6 months. The news in other leading Euro economies is far worse (France down 20%, Italy down 17%, Spain down 23%). The USA economy shrank at an annualised rate of 5% in 1Q20 and at 32.9% in 2Q20. On a comparable basis to Europe, this means the US economy is around 11% smaller than in late 2019. Swedish individuals and firms therefore appear to have used the flexibility provided to them by the Swedish government’s instructions to use their common sense, which has delivered a better economic outcome than many other leading economies. Hence, a conclusion for other governments, interested in this control experiment could be that leaving aside the health challenges, there can be economic benefits. This is true even if this was not the main factor in Sweden’s choice of strategy.

Finally, where we agree with the narrative was that Sweden’s corona strategy was brave. Mundus has no particular medical insight, but it appears that the Public Health Agency erred consistently in the first few weeks in terms of being optimistic towards both the virus and Swedes ability to comprehend the pace at which the new normal needed to be adopted. The pandemic swept over Sweden before it had a chance to react, and the facts are sobering. We believe that the government inquiry into the causes for the high death rate will establish the underlying causes.