Mon. May 20th, 2024

Sweden, the Pandemic Experiment Without a Lockdown: a Failure or a Model to Learn From?

hough the responses of different countries to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic have been diverse, certain measures have been generally applied. The template is summed up in a strategy that has contributed greatly to containing the virus, albeit at the cost of severely disrupting the economic and social order: lockdown. But in the cascade of empty streets and closed shops, there is one country that, like the famous Gaulish village of Asterix, has resisted and continues to resist this interference in the freedom of its citizens: Sweden. This Scandinavian nation of 10.3 million inhabitants has never imposed a lockdown, something that has been both commented on and criticised. When seen in the light of the months that have now passed, has the Swedish model failed or can anything be learned from it?

At the beginning of March, with the coronavirus spreading across the globe, extraordinary measures began to be imposed in Europe. According to a study conducted by Imperial College London (ICL) and published in Nature in June, Sweden recommended the voluntary isolation of those infected and joined other countries in advocating social distancing, with only high schools and universities being closed and public events banned at a later date. Of the 11 countries studied, it was the only one that never imposed a mandatory lockdown, keeping its borders open, as well as its bars and restaurants.

The Swedish constitution prevents the declaration of a state of emergency that restricts the free movement of citizens in times of peace. Unlike in other countries, the adoption of measures has been controlled by the experts of the Public Health Agency, which in practice has left decisions in the hands of its main epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. He is the mastermind of the dissonant Swedish strategy based on the idea that the pandemic was a marathon and not a sprint, so the measures had to be sustainable in the long term. Tegnell’s plan did not explicitly defend the objectives of achieving herd immunity and protecting the economy, although these two ideas were surreptitiously present.


While Sweden’s response to the pandemic was beginning to attract criticism in international forums, the domestic reaction was more favourable. In April, 63% of the population was confident in the country’s ability to contain the outbreak, with 73% supporting the Public Health Agency. In an interview in Nature, Tegnell justified his voluntary measures to flatten the contagion curve, based on trust and individual responsibility: “Closedown, lockdown, closing borders — nothing has a historical scientific basis, in my view,” he said. “Nowhere in Europe has been able to slow down the spread considerably.”

However, there was no lack of internal reproaches for Tegnell’s strategy. In Sweden’s leading newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, 22 scientists signed a letter censuring what they called a failure, particularly because of the high mortality rate in nursing homes, a problem acknowledged by the chief epidemiologist himself. On April 22nd, according to the genetic epidemiologist Paul Franks at the University of Lund, Sweden ranked tenth in the world in terms of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, with 17.3, a very high rate compared to its neighbours Denmark (6.4), Norway (3.4) and Finland (2.6).

At the time, Franks predicted that if the simulations were correct, the number of infections and deaths in Stockholm —which has borne the brunt of the Swedish outbreak— should start to decline. Until effective treatments or vaccines are available, “the ultimate burden of deaths may be the same in countries who opt for lockdown as in those who adopted more liberal containment strategies,” he wrote.


The ICL study revealed that as of May 4 and despite Sweden’s lax approach, this Nordic country maintained a population infection rate of 3.7%, lower than those of countries that imposed strict lockdowns such as Italy (4.6%), United Kingdom (5.1%), Spain (5.5%) and Belgium (8%), and its mortality rate among those infected was in eighth place. However, while the measures taken in Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain had saved 630,000, 470,000 and 450,000 lives, respectively, the Swedish strategy had only prevented 26,000 deaths. With data from May 26, a report from the University of Oxford placed Sweden in eighth place in the world in terms of mortality among the sick, above Spain. According to Johns Hopkins University, Sweden currently has the seventh highest number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the world, with almost 56, but remains below Italy (58), Spain (61), the United Kingdom (69) and Belgium (86).

Thus, despite the fact that Sweden’s data are notoriously worse than those of its Nordic neighbours, freedom of movement has not raised its infection or mortality rates above those of the most affected European countries. But the debate goes on. The Public Health Agency has warned that the number of deaths could double from the current 5,600-plus. On July 21, in the USA Today, 25 Swedish doctors and scientists wrote: “Don’t do what we did. It’s not working.” If that weren’t enough, some analysts say that keeping the country open has not had as positive an economic effect as might be expected.

For his part, Tegnell continues to defend his strategy at every turn, claiming that the rate of contagion is dropping in Sweden and that the country’s healthcare system and intensive care units (ICU) have not been overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. However, a recent study conducted by the University of Uppsala and published in Clinical Infectious Diseases reveals that a large proportion of deaths have occurred outside ICUs because patients with poor prognoses were not admitted, thereby avoiding healthcare system overload at the expense of increasing the number of deaths.


Given all this, even accepting that the results of the Swedish model so far have not been as catastrophic as might be expected, would the strategy work in the same way in other countries? Some experts have stressed that there is an awareness in Sweden of the collective responsibility for the defence of the country that dates back to the Second World War. According to the Uppsala University study, almost a third of the population voluntary isolated themselves, a figure that might have been difficult to achieve in other countries.

But above all, perhaps the final answer to the Swedish question lies in the possibility of achieving the much sought-after herd immunity. On this point, the current consensus is clear; with approximately 6% of the population infected, Sweden is still a long way from the 60% required. But perhaps the consensus could change. Recent studies that take into account the heterogeneity of the population in terms of susceptibility to the virus —the most susceptible become infected earlier, increasing the resistance of the remaining population— suggest that in the best case scenario the herd immunity threshold could be lowered to just 10% of the population. As to whether Sweden will go down in COVID-19 history as a mistake or a valid alternative, the jury, in this case a Viking one, is still out.



The Swedish strategy, based on voluntary measures, has remained largely unchanged over the past year, although in autumn 2020 the use of face masks was temporarily recommended during peak traffic hours on public transport and certain non-essential spaces were closed. In September 2021, the Swedish government announced the removal of most of the remaining restrictions, citing the 70% vaccination rate for those aged 16 and above. However, the country maintains higher COVID death rates than its Nordic neighbours, with around 145 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants—nearly ten times more than Norway, eight times more than Finland and three times more than Denmark—but its overall 11% infection rate also puts it above other countries hard hit by COVID-19, such as Italy and the UK.

For all these reasons, the Swedish case has continued to be the subject of analysis and debate, without there being a unanimous conclusion. In August 2021, a modelling study in Scientific Reports showed that the UK would have doubled its pandemic mortality if the Swedish model had been adopted, while Sweden could have reduced it by less than half had it followed the UK strategy. Meanwhile, the Swedish approach has continued to garner criticism from experts, both at home and abroad, in the media and in specialist journals such as The Lancet. Despite this, a recent Ipsos global survey ranks Sweden seventh in the world in health crisis management, below countries such as Australia and New Zealand that have adopted the most forceful strategies against the pandemic, but ahead of some of its Nordic neighbours and more than 50 nations.

The progression of the pandemic in Sweden is also being used to explore the influence of factors other than restrictions on the dynamics of successive waves. For example, a preprint (preliminary study, not yet published) by two Swedish researchers proposed that a low level of seroprevalence, well below the commonly accepted threshold of herd immunity, could actually have a greater protective effect on the population than restrictive measures, an effect that breaks down when new variants of the virus appear.

In any case, and regardless of the final verdict of history on Sweden’s risky strategy against the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that certain experts have highlighted is that, if the Nordic country has managed to maintain comparatively contained infection and death figures, it has been thanks to its demographics, as it is a country with a low population density. source

Sweden’s no-lockdown COVID strategy was broadly correct, commission suggests

A medical staffer at Sophiahemmet hospital in Stockholm stands at the entrance of a tent for testing and receiving potential COVID-19 patients on April 7, 2020, one of the most deadly months in the pandemic for Sweden. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Sweden should have adopted tougher early measures and the government assumed clearer leadership as COVID-19 hit, though the mostly voluntary no-lockdown strategy was broadly correct, a commission reviewing the country’s pandemic response said on Friday.

Sweden polarized opinion at home and abroad with its handling of the pandemic, opting against the lockdowns implemented by many countries and adopting a largely voluntary approach of promoting social distancing and good hygiene.

The commission — set up by the government under pressure from parliament — said Sweden’s broad policy was “fundamentally correct.”

“It meant that citizens retained more of their personal freedom than in many other countries,” the report says.

But the panel of eight experts, including professors of economics and political science, said the government should have taken clearer leadership and acted sooner when it comes to measures such as capacity limits and masks.

“The Government should have assumed leadership of all aspects of crisis management from the outset,” the commission said in the report. It found the government had too one-sided a dependence on assessments made by the Public Health Agency.

“In February-March 2020, Sweden should have opted for more rigorous and intrusive disease prevention and control measures.”

‘Remarkable’ delay in indoor caps cited

The findings could become a liability for the ruling Social Democrats with a general election due in September. More than 17,000 people have died from or with COVID-19 in Sweden, far more per capita than among Nordic neighbours but less than in most European countries that opted for lockdowns.

Figures from statistics agency Eurostat showed the country had 7.7 per cent more deaths in 2020 than its average for the preceding four years, among the lowest excess mortality rates in Europe.

Young Swedes take a selfie outside the KB nightclub in Malmö early on Feb. 9, when Sweden lifted COVID-19 restrictions once again. (Johan Nilsson/AFP/Getty Images)

“In the light of current knowledge … the Commission is not convinced that extended or recurring mandatory lockdowns, as introduced in other countries, are a necessary element in the response to a new, serious epidemic outbreak.”

Moreover, the report argues the “right balance” was struck in terms of the education sector. Preschool and elementary schools were kept open, with universities and the equivalent of high schools switched to remote learning.

But a number of criticisms were levelled at the central government and its main public health agency, including in areas concerning preparedness and unclear jurisdictional lines.

“In a crisis, there must be no uncertainty about who is in charge,” the experts wrote.

Read the commission report summary:


Faults were found particularly in the early weeks of the pandemic. Unlike many developed and Western nations, Sweden did not order temporary closures of many indoor spaces in early or mid-March 2020, dogged in part by questions whether there was a legal or legislative basis to do so.

The commission said it was “remarkable that it took until 29 March 2020 for the limit on public gatherings and events to be lowered to 50 people.”

In April, the country’s daily pandemic reports were regularly advising of triple-digit COVID death totals.

Recently shed Omicron-related restrictions

In January 2021, Sweden experienced another very significant coronavirus wave. The commission said more could have been done in the fall of 2020 to prepare for that possibility, which scientific experts had warned about for countries in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The Public Health Agency should not have dismissed the use of masks as a disease prevention and control measure in indoor settings and on public transport,” the commission said.

Sweden made some adjustments in early January to its approach in light of the Omicron variant’s sweep across much of the world, but earlier this month said they were no longer needed. Restaurants and bars are now open, with no time or capacity limits.

The country’s health agency said it was scrapping large-scale testing, as it was deemed too expensive in relation to the benefits. Sweden spent the equivalent of about $67 million Cdn per week on testing for the first five weeks of this year and around $3 billion since the start of the pandemic. source