On the 10th July I wrote a blog called ‘Two Cheers for Sweden’, arguing for a broader range of criteria for success in dealing with Covid-19 than just counting Coronavirus deaths. So how’s that going? On the face of it things don’t look too good, and even the King of Sweden is now putting the boot in. The Swedish light-touch approach was criticised at the outset for the country’s much higher death-rate then neighbouring Scandinavian countries. This remains the case. (But it’s also true that Sweden’s Covid death figures are still better than heavy lockdown countries such as the UK, Spain and Italy).
It’s fair to point out that my airy claim on 10th July that the Swedes would experience no second wave has been proved completely wrong. Along with much of the rest of Europe Sweden is in the grip of a second spike of cases, hospitalisations and deaths - with more deaths at the beginning of December than at any other time during the pandemic.
It’s also true that the Swedes are adopting measures that look increasingly mainstream: reducing public gatherings from 50 to 8, banning sales of alcohol after 10 pm, moving high school teaching online, and advising mask wearing.
So does this mean that the Swedish experiment has failed, and that those of us who held (hold?) a candle for it have been sadly misled? It’s only honest to say that things are less clear-cut and more complicated than they looked back in July.
But what seems to be happening is something like policy convergence in the short term. So just as Sweden is taking baby steps lifted from the lockdown playbook, so lockdown countries are moving their own red lines in the Swedish direction. This is most obvious in the schools context. Where Sweden was the outlier in keeping schools open at the beginning of the pandemic, now virtually everyone is doing it.
Beyond the short term, the Corona jury should stay out for a few months - maybe years - yet. The evidence on other criteria - the economy, children missing out on school for months, the mental health problems that go with lockdown and isolation, lonely deaths, divided families, the non-Covid patients missing out on treatment, an increase in domestic violence, and the corrosive effects of policing lockdown - will take a while to come in.
What the last few months do seem to have shown unequivocally is that calls to eliminate the virus are utter fantasy. The question remains how to live with it, and it could be that experience and experiment are distilling a series of practices that will serve us well in the next pandemic.
Because, give the total unwillingness to address the root causes of this one, there surely will be more.