COVID-19 and the Failure of Swedish Exceptionalism

Since the early days of the pandemic, my home country of Sweden has distinguished itself for its contrarian approach. While Swedish leaders never established an official policy of quickly reaching herd immunity, there have been no lockdowns. Schools, restaurants, night clubs, and non-essential shops have all stayed open. 

Not only have there been no mandates regarding facemasks, health authorities have downplayed their efficacy. This may have been understandable early on, as many health agencies around the world advised people to save the limited supply of masks for health care workers. The Swedish authorities, however, have persisted in arguing that masks are more or less useless, and their use is exceedingly rare.

While Sweden’s death numbers compare favorably to the U.S., they stand in stark negative contrast to our Scandinavian neighbors who introduced lockdown measures: Per capita, we have nearly five times as many deaths as Denmark, nine times as many as Finland, and more than ten times as many as Norway. In total, as of this writing, 7,514 Swedes have lost their lives to Covid-19, which works out to a death rate of 742 per 1 million citizens. The equivalent numbers for the other Scandinavian countries are 164 per million (Denmark), 83 per million (Finland) and 72 per million (Norway). There is, in other words, no doubt that Sweden’s approach has led to excessive deaths. 

Why did Sweden adopt this approach, and why was it not rapidly abandoned in April when it was clear that our neighbors were doing far better than we were? 

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