"Despite reports to the contrary, Sweden is paying heavily for its decision not to lock down. As of today, 2,462 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!"
--President Trump on Twitter last week
"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know."
--Donald Rumsfeld, years ago
While reading all the stories about Sweden and its handling of the new coronavirus, one stat keeps coming up. And this particular nugget of a number proves that comparing Sweden with, say, the United States, is a fool's game. It's not apples and oranges. It's apples and rocking chairs:
Half the people in Sweden live in single-person homes.
That is an amazing number. It's the highest in Europe. The United States isn't anywhere close. The Swedes were practicing social distancing before the rest of the world first heard the phrase.
But Sweden is an interesting study anyway, and some of us aren't quite ready to say a study of what. A study of madness? A study of genius? Sweden is a known unknown. For now.
Sweden has handled the covid-19 crisis in its own Swedish way. As it handles all things. (It has a massive welfare state but is consistently ranked near the United States in economic freedoms.) The way Sweden's government has handled the new coronavirus is to not handle the new coronavirus much.
Whereas other nations have locked down their people and economies to prevent the disease's spread, Sweden still sends its children to school, keeps bars and restaurants open, and its people are still getting haircuts. It seems to be a libertarian's dream. But the dream can be unsettling in flashes:
Sweden's fatality rate is higher than much of Europe's. Its nursing homes have been hit hard; nearly 86 percent of the deaths there have been among the elderly. Some reports say one-third of all deaths have been in long-term care homes. Even the government acknowledges failure in that regard.
It is much too early to say that Sweden has handled this right. It is much too early to say that Sweden has handled this wrong. It'll take about a year, maybe two, before anybody can know the knowns there.
But in the coming months, we are curious about these questions:
• Will Sweden's death rate continue to go up, and will the government continue to let it without a general shutdown?
• If there is a vaccine in the fall, winter or spring, will the deaths have been worth it? If there isn't a vaccine in the near future, will Sweden's "herd immunity" be the crown jewel of its efforts?
• Britain tried this approach a month ago, and it famously didn't work. Did Sweden's unusual lifestyle of most people living in single-person homes (we can't get over that), many people already working from home, and its excellent Internet access make the difference?
• Is Sweden's death rate partly due to the way it counts covid-19 cases? The government says it is. The Swedes claim they are doing a much better job than the rest of the world in this regard. And for those Americans who've lost elderly loved ones in the last few months--with all the symptoms of covid-19 but without the official acknowledgement--there is little doubt of an under-count.
• Sweden's health-care system hasn't been overwhelmed despite the high numbers of deaths. Why? Because of its universal state-funded system. For those countries without socialized medicine, are we smart to flatten the curve so our hospitals aren't flooded with patients? It's a rhetorical question.
Several media outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, have prominently featured stories lately about Sweden and its strategy against the virus. Which might explain why the president thought to comment last week.
Jan Albert, a professor of cell biology at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, told CNN that the majority of scientists in Sweden thought this herd immunity plan would work.
"What's the strategy of the other countries?" he asked. "It [herd immunity] was already the only thing that will eventually stop this, unless there is a vaccine in time, which is quite unlikely.
"The truth is that no one, no one in Sweden, no one elsewhere either, knows what the best strategy is. Time will tell."
It always does.
We hope it says something sooner than later.
Editorial on 05/04/2020