The worldwide debate about how to best manage the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic grew more complicated on Wednesday when top World Health Organization (W.H.O) official Dr. Mike Ryan, emergencies program executive director, praised Sweden as a “model” for other nations to follow.
Sweden famously chose not to impose lockdowns or freeze their national economy as the United States and most other countries have.
Fox News quoted Ryan lavishing praise on every aspect of Sweden’s approach to the coronavirus:
“I think if we are to reach a new normal, I think in many ways Sweden represents a future model of — if we wish to get back to a society in which we don’t have lockdowns,” Dr. Mike Ryan said while speaking to reporters from Geneva.
Ryan, who serves as executive director of WHO’s Emergencies Program, praised Sweden’s health care system and credited it with making all the right moves from the beginning of the outbreak.
“They’ve been doing the testing, they’ve ramped up their capacity to do intensive care quite significantly,” he added. “And their health system has always remained within its capacity to respond to the number of cases that they’ve been experiencing.”
Sweden is a very meaty bone of contention in arguments about pandemic response, with critics arguing that its refusal to impose lockdowns has resulted in a high number of infections and deaths, even though its total of 21,092 confirmed cases and 2,586 fatalities as of Friday remains lower than most other European countries in absolute terms. The validity of comparing Sweden with other countries is hotly contested by all sides of the coronavirus argument.
Ryan felt the criticism of Sweden for taking a careless approach to the pandemic is unfair, given the results.
“Sweden has put in place a very strong public policy around social distancing, around caring and protecting for people in long term care facilities and many other things. What it has done differently is it has very much relied on its relationship with its citizenry and the ability and willingness of citizens to implement physical distancing and to self-regulate,” he said.
Opinions on Sweden vary depending on who the opinion-giver decides to compare it with and how the numbers are calculated. The New York Times (NYT) on Wednesday said Sweden’s death rate is comparable to Ireland’s low numbers and “far better than in Britain or France,” while Sweden’s critics prefer to compare it with other Scandinavian countries and calculate a Swedish death rate that is several times higher than Denmark, Norway, or Finland, all of which imposed strict lockdowns.
The NYT further complicated these comparisons by suggesting Sweden’s numbers are higher because it has more aggressively and accurately reported its numbers of infections and deaths than its neighbors, who have all been obliged to make sizable upward revisions after discovering the number of deaths was undercounted.
No sooner had Politico drawn partisan battle lines around Sweden on Thursday by declaring that American conservatives “have developed a fascination with Sweden’s hands-off approach to the coronavirus” than President Donald Trump announced himself to be one of Sweden’s critics on Twitter, lining up with those who believe the Swedish approach compares poorly with the other Scandinavian lockdowns.
Despite reports to the contrary, Sweden is paying heavily for its decision not to lockdown. As of today, 2462 people have died there, a much higher number than the neighboring countries of Norway (207), Finland (206) or Denmark (443). The United States made the correct decision!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 30, 2020
Besides arguing if Sweden’s refusal to impose lockdowns was a humanitarian disaster – or addressing the far more difficult argument of if the country made a reasonable decision to accept more coronavirus cases to avoid the economic and humanitarian damage from a lockdown – observers are puzzled as to how Sweden managed to do so much better than most models predicted.
The New York Times speculated Sweden might have benefited from being a “high-trust society” whose citizens did not have to be coerced into taking effective social distancing measures, but then noticed the Swedes do not seem to be socially distancing all that much. The streets of Stockholm were filled on Tuesday with shoppers, strollers, and diners enjoying a lovely spring day and pronouncing themselves quite satisfied with the decision to avoid a lockdown:
While other countries were slamming on the brakes, Sweden kept its borders open, allowed restaurants and bars to keep serving, left preschools and grade schools in session and placed no limits on public transport or outings in local parks. Hairdressers, yoga studios, gyms and even some cinemas have remained open.
Gatherings of more than 50 people are banned. Museums have closed and sporting events have been canceled. At the end of March, the authorities banned visits to nursing homes.
That’s roughly it. There are almost no fines, and police officers can only ask people to oblige. Pedestrians wearing masks are generally stared at as if they have just landed from Mars.
“Once you get into a lockdown, it’s difficult to get out of it. How do you reopen? When?” asked Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, echoing the questions just about everyone in the Western world is asking right now.
Sweden’s answer was to avoid lockdowns altogether, and however its statistics might measure up against countries of comparable size, the Times noted Sweden unquestionably managed to “flatten the curve” because its intensive care units never came anywhere near filling to capacity.
The primary goal of the lockdowns in other countries was said to be avoiding a disastrous overstraining of ICUs by a flood of patients, as occurred in Italy. According to health officials, Sweden still has hundreds of empty hospital beds. Tegnell said the biggest regret among health experts at the moment is the high toll the coronavirus has taken on the elderly population.