Analysis: Is Sweden right in its handling of COVID-19?

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By Darren McCaffrey, Political Editor
People enjoy themselves at an outdoor restaurant, amid the coronavirus outbreak, in central Stockholm, Sweden
People enjoy themselves at an outdoor restaurant, amid the coronavirus outbreak, in central Stockholm, Sweden   -  Copyright  Anders Wiklund/ALI LORESTANI /TT NYHETSBYRÅN

It’s been labelled risky, reckless, an outlier. Sweden has been at the centre of much debate over the past few weeks. Why has it not ruthlessly pursued lockdown like everyone else? Is it doing the right thing?

Well, the Swedes themselves seem to think so, with overwhelming support for their government’s decisions and the advice of scientists.

This is not a country divided. And we should also be clear that this is not a country that has done nothing. It has banned large gatherings, closed high schools and universities and told elderly people to self-isolate.

But restaurants, bars, primary schools and most businesses are still open. The country has forged its odd path. And in absolute terms, unfortunately, more people so far have died compared to its Nordic neighbours.

At the time of writing, Sweden has 14,777 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,580 people have died. If we compare that to Norway, which has half the population, it has seen 7,156 cases – or approximately half of that of Sweden – and the much-lower figure of 181 deaths. Finland, which has a population similar to Norway's, has seen 4,014 COVID-19 cases and 98 fatalities.

Comparably, the virus has been nearly ten times more deadly in Sweden, even though it has only twice the population. Yet, hospitals have not been overwhelmed; figures available from last week show capacity is running at 80 per cent and worst-case estimates around infection and death rates have simply not transpired.

That is not to say there isn’t anger out there, particularly at a perceived lack of shielding of older people. More than a third of fatalities have been people living in care homes.

The impact of the coronavirus cannot simply be measured by its effect on health. Unsurprisingly, Sweden has been less damaged economically. Personal spending in Denmark is down 66 per cent and in Finland it stands at 70 per cent, compared to only 30 per cent in Sweden. Unemployment claims in Norway are rising four times as fast as those in Sweden. The latter’s overall economy is not expected to slump to nearly the same degree as much of Europe.

And then there is the issue of so-called herd immunity. Studies at the weekend suggested between 25-40 per cent of Stockholm may have actually already had the virus. It could be up to 60 per cent by late May. In France, it is currently believed to stand at around six per cent.

Does this mean Sweden will be better able to stem, stop or see less of an impact from the second or third waves when they inevitably come? We honestly do not know. It isn’t an exact science at the moment, we can't predict the future. And it will be a long time before we can fully assess whether or not Sweden has got it right.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.

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