Sweden has announced that it will be lifting all remaining coronavirus restrictions by the end of the month, following its Nordic neighbour Denmark which declared that the country would be returning to normal this week.
While Sweden placed emphasis on personal responsibility and shied away from introducing the draconian lockdown measures seen throughout much of the Western world, it is a popular misconception that it has not implemented some restrictions over the past year and a half.
Though there has been no blanket stay at home lockdowns and mask-wearing orders and social distancing has remained optional, the Swedish government has imposed curfews on certain businesses as well as shutting down sporting venues and public swimming pools.
During the winter wave of the virus, the government also banned alcohol sales after 10 p.m., reduced maximum permitted public gatherings from 50 to eight people, and switched many high schools to online teaching.
Travel restrictions have also been put in place and last week tourists from Israel were barred from the country.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren announced that the remaining restrictions as well as the recommendation to work from home will be lifted by September 29th.
“The important message is that we now take further steps in the return to normal everyday life,” Hallengren said, adding: “Our view has all the time been that restrictions should be lifted as soon as possible.”
The Swedish health minister did say that the government is currently looking into the possibility of introducing domestic vaccine passports for large public gatherings. However, she said that the consultation should be viewed as a backup plan, with the expectation of it not needing to be used.
A year and a half after the Wuhan virus plunged the world into chaos, the verdict on Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to restrictions is still to be written.
It is true to say that despite not imposing strict lockdown measures, the death rate from the Chinese virus in Sweden remains lower than many Western nations which did impose lockdowns. While Sweden saw a fatality rate of 143 per 100,00, developed countries including France, Portugal, Romania, and Spain were higher, seeing between 170 and 180 deaths per 100,000.
The United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Belgium, Slovakia, and Moldova all fared worse than lockdown-lite Sweden with between 190 and 250 deaths per 100,000 people in the country. Some developed Central European nations saw even more deaths still. Czechia has had 295 fatalities per 100,000, while Hungary has seen 308 per 100,000 — more than double Sweden’s figure.
When comparing Sweden (10.2 million people) to the similarly populated U.S. state of Michigan (9.9 million) — a state which had some of the strictest lockdown measures in the United States — Sweden had significantly fewer deaths, 14,659 against 21,758 to date.
However, perhaps a better metric of Sweden’s performance as a sparsely populated, cold country in northern Europe is to compare it against other sparsely populated cold countries in northern Europe — and indeed, Sweden (143 per 100k) has experienced a considerably higher death rate than its Nordic neighbours, with ten times as many deaths as Finland (19 per 100k) and Norway (15 per 100k), both of which imposed lockdowns.
The economic benefits for Sweden of avoiding lockdown measures is also unclear. While analysts have said that the Swedish economy has rebounded from the crisis quicker than others in Europe — surpassing pre-pandemic levels in June — projections for growth over the next year put Sweden below other EU nations which did lock down, although other historic factors like high levels of unemployment before the pandemic may impact this.
Sweden did experience smaller economic contractions than most of Europe, shrinking by 2.8 per cent in 2020 compared to the EU average of six per cent and 9.8 per cent in Britain.
However, countries such as Poland and Estonia had similar dips in 2020 and Luxembourg and Lithuania actually saw less economic damage than Sweden.
Yet, one takeaway from the Sweden project is undeniable: the predictions of doom and mass fatalities were massively overblown.
Scientists in Belgium forecasted last year that some 96,000 people would die in Sweden in 2020, for example — six and a half times the total number of deaths since the pandemic began.
Last year, The New York Times also declared that “Sweden Has Become the World’s Cautionary Tale”, but the country has far outperformed many other countries with stricter lockdowns in terms of deaths.
It is difficult to say why exactly Sweden has had a lower death rate than the U.S. and UK, as it is likely that factors such as obesity, population density, and demographics all contributed to the disparity.
Other unknowns such as herd immunity factors and the weather are not well documented as of yet.
Another aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is the state of liberty compared to the costs. While citizens across the Western world have seen their civil rights severely limited under the guise of public safety, particularly in countries such as Australia, Canada, Britain, and in certain states in America, the government of Sweden has largely left it up to its people to determine what risks they were willing to take.
The lack of scare tactics and strict restrictions in Sweden likely resulted in disparities of those reporting to have suffered negative mental health effects from the pandemic compared to other Western nations.
A survey in December from YouGov found the Britons were the most likely to have had suffered from mental health problems during the pandemic, with 65 per cent claiming they have suffered in the UK compared to 54 per cent in Sweden.
Interestingly, it is now Denmark leading the push for a return to the normal state of freedom, outpacing Sweden in lifting its restrictions by a couple of weeks.
Denmark, which was the first Northern European nation to introduce lockdown measures last year, has now become the first set to lift restrictions, with all coronavirus measures to be rescinded by Friday.
The government of Denmark is not claiming that the virus has been eliminated, but rather that it has reached a stage in which it can be lived with. Last week, the government announced that the Chinese virus is “no longer a critical threat to society” and therefore there is no justification for the continuation of draconian governmental powers.
It means that Danes will no longer be required to present vaccine passports domestically, social distancing measures have been scrapped, and children will no longer have to self-isolate if their school identifies an infection in a teacher or fellow classmate. Nightclubs have finally reopened without restriction and even music festivals will return.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen declared: “Everyday life is fortunately back in most places and we have the clear expectation that we can avoid major lockdowns in the future.”