For the past few months I’ve held something of a candle for the Swedish approach to Covid-19, mostly because I think that, in the Anthropocene, living with the non-human world - yes, even the lethal bits - is in the long run better than fighting it. One way or another, that’s what the Swedes have been trying to do.
Support for the Swedish approach is regarded as misguided - at best - on the grounds that it’s killed more people per head of population than its Nordic neighbours. A friend sent me an article - and there are plenty - confirming this just the other day.
Debate over? Well, no. Even if Covid success were judged solely on deaths per head of population it wouldn’t be an open-and-shut case, as Sweden has fewer deaths per 100,000 inhabitants than Spain, the UK, France or Italy, all of which went through periods of total lockdown.
But this has never been Sweden’s pitch anyway.
It’s been much more about avoiding the disadvantages of the mainstream lockdown approach to dealing with Coronavirus: collapsing economies, 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, the threat of second and subsequent waves, the crazy Great Escapes when lockdowns are eased and the sun comes out, and the corrosive effects of policing lockdown.
Sweden has done its best to keep the economy going while other countries have shut theirs down. Has it worked? It certainly did to start with: at least in March it performed better than much of the EU as it recorded a decline of just 0.3 per cent, compared with a 3.8 per cent fall for the Eurozone.
But in today’s interconnected world Covid in one country is as tough to pull off as socialism in one country. Sweden’s small, open economy has been a victim of Covid-induced disruption of international supply chains. Truckmaker Volvo Group and carmaker Volvo Cars were both forced to stop production for several weeks, not because of conditions in Sweden but due to lack of parts and difficulties in their supply chains elsewhere in Europe. If only the rest of Europe had followed the Swedish example?
Even so, according to the Financial Times, Swedish prospects post-Covid are better than the rest of Europe, with a 7% decline in GDP comparing favourably with numbers for Germany, Belgium, UK, France, Spain, Italy, and neighbouring Nordic countries.
Sweden has kept its schools open (up to age 16), avoiding the interminable squabbles in lockdown countries between government, teachers, parents and unions. Swedes support the policy for helping with children’s mental health as well as allowing parents to keep on working.
Crucially, Swedes reckon that public health is about more than preventing Covid deaths - the opposite of the notion that has taken a vice-like grip in countries like the UK where only Covid seems to count. There are the well-documented mental and physical health problems associated with lockdown, for example, as well as the health problems that have gone undiagnosed or untreated during lockdown, including 18,000 possibly dying from cancer in the UK sooner than they should have because of Corona delays.
In avoiding lockdown, Sweden is also set to escape the problems that come with releasing it. The idea of a ‘second wave’ makes no sense, for example. While there may be fresh outbreaks like those in Germany, Italy, South Korea, Beijing, Melbourne, Leicester, and Galicia, there will be no accompanying disruptive lockdowns. There won’t be any riots protesting a second lockdown, as there have been in Belgrade. Nor will there be any need to police quarantine hotels after breakouts, as in New Zealand.
More positively, Sweden is operating a citizen-centred, everyone-for-the-community strategy that is a better model than top-down lockdown for dealing with crises like climate change. ‘Treating citizens as children lacking the judgment to make wise decisions is not a sustainable approach’, writes Elizabeth Braw of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. ‘Addressing a prolonged crisis, or one that comes in repeated waves, will require citizens to be active and responsible participants in their security — not mere recipients of government instructions’.
So when it comes to judging a country’s Covid success, let’s allow a wider range of criteria than Covid deaths per head of population. And let’s not make snap judgements. As Chinese Premier Chou en-Lai is supposed to have said when asked about the impact of the French Revolution: ‘It’s too early to say’.