Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (Image: EPA/Anders Wiklund)

It hasn’t taken long for the Sweden haters to come out in force. The outpouring of schadenfreude at the apparent downfall of the arrogant Swedes who refused to fully shut down their economy to combat a virus that statistically (in Australia) had killed about one in every 25,000 people.

Retired British kidney specialist David Goldsmith — apparently posing as an epidemiologist — was especially critical of the Swedish response last week, claiming the Swedes were “caught up in their own bullshit”. “What was it about the Swedes that would simply mean they could sit there and expect not to have a second wave of such severity?” he asked.

The Telegraph claimed that the architect of Sweden’s lighter lockdown, Anders Tegnell, “appears to be being sidelined”, with Nicholas Aylott of Stockholm’s Södertörn University claiming that “by some counts, we’ve now got exactly the same level of spread of the virus that we had in the spring, and that’s about as clear a refutation of Tegnell’s strategy as you could wish for”.

Other critics of Sweden failed the most basic of tests. Last week Reuters claimed the country “has seen a surge in the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths in recent weeks” and “the country battles a growing second wave of a disease that has now killed more than 6000 Swedes”.

The problem with that is that Sweden’s first wave led to more than 6000 deaths; its second only 600. The writer apparently forgot to check when people died.

Under Tegnell’s strategy, Sweden undertook several targeted measures — specifically banning mass gatherings (more than 50 people) and stopping senior school and university attendance.

It did, however, allow most school students to attend campus and small businesses to remain open.

Although Sweden clearly didn’t eradicate the virus with herd immunity as some had hoped, Tegnell’s critics have been very selective in choosing their comparators.

Goldsmith and Aylott both compared Sweden with Finland and Norway (two of the lowest case-and-fatality Western countries) rather than say, Goldsmith’s own UK or France.

The data seems to indicate that Sweden’s relatively non-deadly second wave has absolutely vindicated Tegnell’s approach: Sweden is again able to bend the curve without implementing a strict lockdown.

Here’s Sweden’s recent case graph:

Now let’s look at the UK, which did lock down (albeit less strictly than Victoria in its second wave). Its curve looks remarkably similar to Sweden’s:

But caseloads are for all intents and purposes a less relevant data point than fatalities.

For example, Singapore — which alongside Taiwan has been the gold standard for COVID-19 management — has reported 58,230 cases, but a mere 29 deaths.

How deadly has Sweden’s second wave been? Not very. Its seven-day rolling averages of fatalities peaked at 31 and has dropped back to 12:

Meanwhile in France, which recently did lock down during its second wave, shutting restaurants and bars but not factories and schools, has seen a far worse fatality rate than Sweden. Its rolling average exceeded 500 earlier this month (so 18 times the deaths with about seven times Sweden’s population):

Sweden had proportionally fewer deaths in its second wave than its first wave, when authorities ineptly allowed the virus to cascade through aged care homes.

By contrast, the second wave in France appears to be more deadly than its first wave in total fatalities (albeit with a far lower case fatality rate than its first wave, presumably due to far more testing).

It appears the real person most “caught up in their own bullshit” is Goldsmith.

Meanwhile Japan, which has maintained a far less strict lockdown than most, announced that more people died from suicide in October alone than died from COVID-19 in 2020.

There is no doubt that the highly infectious COVID-19 absolutely kills people (median age: 83) but so too does locking down a population and cutting off community and livelihoods.

Time will tell which strategy was right, but so far Sweden seems to be defying its critics.

Peter Fray

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