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Whatever happened to Sweden?

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LINUS MIMIETZ-UNSPLASH

For some reason, people hate talking about Sweden. Bring it up in polite conversation or on social media and some crank is going to get triggered. And all Sweden did was to get it right in dealing with the pandemic.

Because Sweden avoided what incompetent governments did, which was to engage in prolonged, strict, and comprehensive lockdowns. It did not shut down schools, businesses (including restaurants) remained open, and masks (never mind face shields) while encouraged were not forced upon people. Instead, Sweden relied on reasoned common sense: proper hygiene, social distancing, stringent border control, and essentially did what good governments do — trust its people.

A great majority of Swedes believe that its government is doing the right thing (according to a survey conducted in March this year). And they’re likely right to do so.

What Sweden understood and which lockdown-minded policymakers forgot was the reality of tradeoffs: that doing one thing will lead to consequences in another area and more often than not the consequences are unforeseeable.

“Rational people understand this isn’t how the world works. Regardless of whether we acknowledge them, tradeoffs exist.” (“Sweden saw lower mortality rate than most of Europe in 2020, despite no lockdown,” Jonathan Miltimore, March 26, 2021).

In the end, Sweden was able to get away with an economy relatively unscathed.

Thus, while it “still experienced an economic contraction in the second quarter of the year, with its GDP shrinking by 8.6%, this was significantly less than the estimated average for the European Union as a whole, which saw a decline of approximately 11.9%. At the opposite end of the spectrum, meanwhile, those individual European nations that imposed particularly strict lockdowns were hit hard by the COVID-19 crunch, with Spain’s economy contracting by 18.5% after implementing arguably the harshest lockdown in the EU. By keeping society open throughout the pandemic — even with spending reduced as Swedes embraced voluntary social distancing — Sweden appears to have been able to soften the economic blow to small businesses and avoid the onslaught of job losses that is currently blighting countries across the EU.” (“The Swedish experiment: was it forward-thinking or not?”; Emily Cashen, World Finance, March 9, 2021).

The criticism hurled against Sweden is related to that inutile trope: “buhay bago negosyo (life before business).” Thus, it is argued, Sweden’s deaths were said to be the highest per population in Europe (and higher than its Nordic neighbors) and is more than four times larger than that of the Philippines.

But Sweden has circumstances different from its neighbors (e.g., it is more cosmopolitan, its borders more porous) and to compare it to the Philippines is inane considering differences in demographics and environment. The Philippines itself has a death count higher than its neighbors Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

And is Sweden’s death count really that bad compared to its fellow European countries? The answer is no.

“Preliminary data from EU statistics agency Eurostat compiled by Reuters showed Sweden had 7.7% more deaths in 2020 than its average for the preceding four years. Countries that opted for several periods of strict lockdowns, such as Spain and Belgium, had so-called excess mortality of 18.1% and 16.2% respectively. Twenty-one of the 30 countries with available statistics had higher excess mortality than Sweden.

“Many critics countered by comparing Sweden’s death rate to its Nordic counterparts Norway and Finland, which had some of the lowest mortality rates in Europe. Norway and Finland, however, embraced policies even less restrictive than Sweden’s for most of the pandemic.” (See Miltimor).

The lockdown crowd now offers another argument: that Sweden’s 63% vaccination rate (13th in Europe) is to be credited for Sweden’s relatively better condition. But that doesn’t hold water.

A recent study (“Indications that Stockholm has reached herd immunity, given limited restrictions, against several variants of SARS-CoV-2,” Marcus Carlsson, Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler; July 13, 2021) points out that “the herd-immunity threshold appears to be much lower than previously thought.” The researchers were able to construct “a theoretical framework in which the cases in Stockholm County can be fully predicted without relying on neither oscillations in restrictions (and public compliance thereof) nor vaccination roll-out.” Doing so showed that it is “very difficult to match the data from Stockholm without including pre-immunity.”

As News Medical’s Sally Robertson reports: “herd immunity is not responsible for Sweden’s control of COVID-19.” Instead, what the researchers seem to suggest is that “‘pre-immunity’ or immunological ‘dark matter’ could underlie the unexpected trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic” and that “what looks like pre-immunity on a population level, could in fact be a consequence of large variability in individual-level susceptibility. Furthermore, this susceptibility may depend on innate immunity and cross-reactive protective immunity initiated by another virus or other factors.”

All this to reiterate what this column has consistently pointed out since this insanity began: lockdowns don’t work.

Stanford’s Dr. Jay Bhattacharya puts it even better, lockdowns are simply the “biggest public health mistake we’ve ever made.”

Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

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