• RJ Smith

A Closer Look at the Swedish Model

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s principal epidemiologist

A consensus has emerged in the West that the appropriate—indeed only—response to the spread of the coronavirus is to suspend civil liberties and halt economic activity.

Few world leaders have dared try another approach, and most who have were labelled something between a scoundrel and a murderer and hastily changed course.

Boris Johnson proposed a ‘herd immunity’ solution before himself contracting the virus and coming out in favour of repressive measures. Donald Trump said he wanted Americans back to work by Easter and now says the US is at war with an invisible enemy.

But one developed country has been an especially curious outlier—Sweden.

Heads shook with indignation as images of well-dressed blonde people sitting in bars appeared on television screens across the world. The Swedish approach, according to one Danish journalist, was “like watching a horror movie.”

Then, predictably, the virus descended upon the Swedes like a tsunami. Lock-downs were introduced. Civil liberties were abrogated. And with precious time wasted bodies piled up in the streets.

This is what we were told. But as with many stories recently, nothing is as it seems.

In fact little has changed in Sweden over the last few weeks. There are no lockdowns. Bars, restaurants and schools remain open. Citizens are free to come and go from their homes at will.

The government advice—and it is nothing more than that—is for citizens to “avoid social contact if you have symptoms or are aged over 70.” The country has also taken the prudent step of banning visits to retirement homes.

The Netherlands has taken a similar approach. The government’s aim, in its own words, “is essentially to control the virus as much as possible in order to protect vulnerable groups.”

To date around 1,400 deaths have been recorded in Sweden. Nearly 3,500 have occurred in the Netherlands. These figures, although small by Western European standards, are cause for concern. But a few facts should be borne in mind when considering them and the approach of these two nations.

First, a vaccine for this virus is a long way away, if one can be developed at all. No such treatment has been produced for comparable diseases such as SARS and MERS, and according to ANU Professor of Infectious Diseases Peter Collingnon there is a good chance we won’t succeed this time either.

Second, even the most draconian measures cannot stop the march of this virus. Eventually it will spread until reaching ‘herd immunity,’ a bogey-man term which simply refers to the point at which a virus can no longer spread because a quorum of the population has been exposed to it.

Third, young casualties of this virus are exceptionally rare. The median age of casualties in France—where the life-expectancy is nearly identical to that of Australia—is 84 years, and most die with two or three co-morbidities.

Given these facts, the logic of the Swedish and Dutch model comes into much sharper focus. It achieves the twin aims of keeping the economy running and protecting the vulnerable, allowing the virus to pass through the younger and healthier population, most of whom will show no symptoms for the virus.

Let us not forget that the aim of the lockdowns is to ensure resources are available for those who need them. So far, neither Sweden nor the Netherlands have struggled to cope with the demand the virus has placed upon their health services. There is no indication Australia will either.

Australians, who have lifestyles more similar to Swedes and the Dutch than the French or Italians, should consider this approach. But one doubts many will. We are the lucky country, and like all privileged people have become defensive and risk averse.

This is one of our strengths. But it also explains why we are prepared to barricade ourselves indoors for months on end, with the massive concomitant damage this will cause our economy, health and way of life for no long-term benefit.

Sweden has chosen, if most reports are to be believed, a risky option for handling the coronavirus. The real risk is that Australia fails to follow its level-headed example.

Related: My piece on the coronavirus hysteria on The Australian.

© 2020 RJ Smith.