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Sweden Has Resisted a Lockdown. But That Doesn’t Make it a Bastion of Liberty

“Be like Sweden,” has become an unlikely rallying cry among libertarians, free-market liberals and other proponents of individual liberty around the world in the past few weeks. From outlets like National Review and Reason, to Bill Mitchell and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, the Swedish government has been praised for its decision not to impose a COVID-19 lockdown, instead leaving it up to citizens to decide whether and how to practice social distancing.

Here in Sweden, where I live, schools and stores are open, and sidewalk cafés remain bustling in the midst of the pandemic. To be sure, there are restrictions. Only recently, a few Stockholm bars were temporarily closed by authorities for violating the new social-distancing requirements. But limits on crowds have been set at 50 people—far above the limits in most other European countries—and the government mostly relies on recommendations rather than mandates.

As a result, we’re repeatedly told by international free-market proponents that Sweden has struck a sounder balance between disease control and individual freedom. In a widely shared article, for instance, a National Review writer claimed that “Sweden has courageously decided not to endorse a harsh quarantine,” and that it is “refusing to panic.”

It may indeed seem puzzling: Sweden is a country known for the imposing size of its state sector and some of the most intrusive social policies in the Western world. Though sidewalk cafés are crowded, lighting a cigarette here is illegal, not to mention bringing your drink when you slip out of a bar for a smoke.

So how did Sweden suddenly become a model of libertarianism? In fact, it didn’t.

In reality, Sweden’s response to the pandemic has less to do with freedom and individual responsibility, and more to do with the country’s tradition of consensus and social control. Its choice of a uniquely lax approach to the pandemic should not be mistaken for a sudden turn toward individual freedom.

The Swedish strategy, devised by a team of government experts headed by chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, rests on the assumption that COVID-19 cannot be contained, and that other international experts are overestimating its fatality rates. Herd immunity is viewed as the inevitable end point, and it is assumed that such immunity can be achieved relatively quickly and at a cost in human lives that will not be too high.

“We have been a bit careful [about] the words [herd immunity] because it can give the impression that you have given up, and that is not at all what this is about… We will not gain control of this in any other way,” Tegnell explained in an interview in March.

Asked about the estimated 60 percent share of Sweden’s 10 million citizens required to achieve herd immunity, he explained: “Even if it sounds like a lot, it might be that [only] one of those 60 percent get really sick and maybe five or six who will need healthcare. If those five-six percent can be smudged out over six-eight-ten-twelve months, then it is possible for the healthcare system to handle [it].”

This is a controversial topic, one that is the subject of intense debate among epidemiologists around the world, and even within Sweden itself. Among the Swedish public, however, the country’s state epidemiologists are perceived as authoritative.

But although Sweden has chosen a policy that is relatively lax with respect to the spread of the virus, it is far from libertarian in its implementation. Sweden has not just decided to keep primary schools open during the pandemic: Sending children to school is mandatory, even now, and homeschooling remains illegal. (Sick children can stay home. But the Swedish Public Health Agency, the government body responsible for the country’s response to the pandemic, has emphasized in recent weeks that primary school is still mandatory for all children who don’t show any symptoms.)

In Sweden, homeschooling is viewed as a violation of children’s right to participation in public life, and possibly an indication of abuse. Ultimately, keeping children out of the school system is an offence for which parents can be separated from their children. No one has had their children taken from them during this crisis, and it isn’t likely that anyone will, but schools are threatening parents with messages like this one, from a principal in southern Sweden: “Those healthy children who do not come to school violate the law and after a longer period of inexcusable absence you will be called to a meeting with the principal, thereafter the social services may be contacted.” Other schools are currently repeating the same message: If you keep your child at home, you risk being reported.

Though polls show that most Swedes trust the state consensus, a minority would prefer to have their families self-isolate, but cannot because they risk intervention from social services. Imagine being a Swedish parent who belongs to a high-risk group, and to face the choice between possibly contracting the virus through your child’s school, and that of being reported to the authorities for the offence of homeschooling.

Even though Sweden has taken a path that is extreme compared to virtually all other EU countries, there is limited overt political opposition, and scientists who have criticized the strategy have been victims of vicious attacks on their characters, and are rejected at public events. The rector at a leading Swedish university even saw it necessary to declare in a blog post (available in English) that employees who had publicly criticized the government’s COVID-19 response would not be censored for doing so. That he even saw a need for such a public statement is telling of the current mood in the country.

Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate hovers high above that of other Nordic countries, which have chosen a more restrictive strategy. As of this writing, Sweden has 22 deaths per 100,000 citizens—more than five times as many as Norway (four per 100,000) and three times as many as Denmark (seven per 100,000), even though all three countries saw their first fatalities on roughly the same date. But collectivism is deeply ingrained in Swedish culture—for good and ill—and many view it as bad form to question the authorities in the midst of a crisis.

Ebba Busch Thor, leader of the Christian Democrats opposition party and usually a fierce critic of the Social Democratic and Green government, put it in military terms when she declared her support for the prime minister: “This is not a time to question the commander in charge.”

Meanwhile, the Swedish government has discussed legislation that would result in an unprecedented power grab. It also has chosen to use its support programs in response to the economic crisis as a means to boost union power, such as by favoring companies that have signed collective agreements with workers’ unions.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to the Swedish strategy to allow the virus to spread until herd immunity is attained. One may or may not agree with such a strategy. But for a government to decide that more than half of the population is to be infected by a virus such as COVID-19, and in effect to prohibit families with schoolchildren from opting out of the herd, hardly rings of individual freedom.

 

Paulina Neuding is a journalist and a columnist at Quillette. She lives in Stockholm, Sweden. Follow her on Twitter @paulinaneuding.

Comments

  1. STOCKHOLM – Does Sweden’s decision to spurn a national lockdown offer a distinct way to fight COVID-19 while maintaining an open society? The country’s unorthodox response to the coronavirus is popular at home and has won praise in some quarters abroad. But it also has contributed to one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates.
    (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html)
    (https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/swedish-coronavirus-no-lockdown-model-proves-lethal-by-hans-bergstrom-2020-04)

    Sweden - Population 10m - Fatalities 3,256
    Australia - Population 25m - Fatalities 97

    Australia went early (before WHO made any move at all).
    Out lockdowns and social distancing as well as economic responses have all been common sense and stand us in good stead.

    There are many countries that have far better outcomes than Sweden.
    Singapore is far denser in population per sq/km, but with a population of 5m has 21 fatalities, and people are in far closer proximity.
    The actual results of the Swedish v Lockdown numbers seem to be quite clear in the data (ie facts).

    The romantic approach that the Swedish model is superior seems to be pretty fatal.
    However, as with much reporting from all sides of the spectrum the romantic libertarian approach seems to be a whole bunch of nonsense and fatal to locals.

    Whatever happened to journalists with integrity for telling the facts.

    (Selective) Truth has become a weapon to win an argument.
    Funny when journalists complain about lack of career opportunities - but keep lowering journalistic standards with idealogical reporting.
    No-one believes them anymore, and certainly no-one trusts them.

    The data seems to indicate a lot more Swedes have died unnecessarily compared to other countries.

  2. Getting to herd immunity as quickly as possible, while doing the least economic damage is an admirably reasonable approach. The main thing most western countries could have done much better is, protect the vulnerable senior citizens cooped up in closed quarters. More than half of Sweden’s mortality has come from senior care homes. The governor of NY actually decreed the housing of infected seniors in care homes----with disastrous consequences, predictably!

    The pernicious fallacy that seems to have a grip on the popular imagination is the notion that the lockdown is achieving victory of some sort. It is not. There is no victory here except herd immunity. There is no certainty that a vaccine will be found. The secondary consequences of a shattered economy will quickly surpass the death toll from the virus, specially in poor countries.

    The government and its central planners have posted the worst record in all of this. Yet it appears, in some particular surveys anyway, there is strong popular support for central planning by government. It tells me something very significant. In the UK a bizarre cult has emerged, of NHS worship. People seem to be quite literally using the NHS as a surrogate for the value formerly occupied by faith in God.

  3. Such integrity would involve “telling” ALL of the facts, including the relative economic consequences, the impact on deaths by causes other than the virus, and the long-term trade-offs.

    Listing only the benefits of your preferred proposal and only the costs of alternatives is about as far from “integrity” as can be.

  4. Hardly anyone seems terribly worried about that.

    Particularly, the white, middle class and college-educated, who don’t seem to realize that their work-from-home jobs will soon be disappearing as the unemployed stop buying their companies’ goods and services.

  5. It is actually rather fortunate that not every country has responded to this plague in the same way. No matter where you live, you are a government directed guinea pig. Because of the differences in approaches, we will therefore be able to discern, when the dust settles, which one worked best. Obviously this will help us immensely in dealing with the next inevitable bout. It is truly unfortunate that lives must be lost in this great experimentation, but how else are we to learn? Right now no one owns the truth, despite a shit storm of partially and/or unsubstantiated opinions which seem to replicate faster than coronavirus.

  6. I’m not sure this article was about which approach is the best. I think this article was about how much Swedes are libertarians. It turned out that not very.

  7. On the contrary, natural, because Sweden is on the right side of the history, Hungary is on the wrong side of the history – our son of a bitch logic.
    Honestly, they are not the first. I myself often use this logic, though mostly when I watch football :smirk:

  8. I can’t agree with that. If two diseases each kill 1% of those infected and one infects 100 people and the other infects 100,000,000 people, the second disease is clearly much more impactful.

    COVID-19 spreads much more easily than the flu, ergo it would be substantially worse even with the same mortality rate. And it probably doesn’t have the same mortality rate, as the 0.1% rate used for the flu is likely a significant overestimate. Even if COVID-19 was at 0.3%, that might be 10 times higher than the flu.

    Here’s New York City’s data for deaths as a percentage of the total population (not percentage of infected - percentage of total population):

    By contrast, here’s total annual mortality, by age range, for Americans over the last few decades:

    Per the second chart, we’re used to seeing less than 10% of people aged 75-84% die in a given year (from all causes) and less than 20% of people age 85+. Per the first chart, we’ve seen over 1% of New York’s people age 75+ die from COVID-19 in just 2 months.

    Now, I’m completely onboard with the complaint that we’re overcounting the dead (sign a petition to address that: https://www.change.org/p/u-s-governors-require-every-dead-person-to-be-tested-for-covid-19). But even so, these graphs suggest that the number of deaths of people age 75+ in NYC from COVID-19 over a full year would be close to equaling their number of deaths from all other causes.

    And let’s face it, old people die a lot from other causes.

    On a Quillette increasingly burdened with fake centrists, and with a new vocal Leftist who thinks that holding him to his own standards makes me a blind ideologue unworthy of response, somehow I am the closest thing to an actual centrist on COVID-19. I bounce back and forth from arguing arguing the “it’s just the flu” camp to arguing against the “cancel civilization!” camp. And no, Fake Centrist, this does not mean that “centrism” is a principle. It means that I’m adhering to principles (such as following the data) and arriving at a conclusion that happens to seem in-between the beliefs of two other camps.

    More likely to be used as a rorschach test than to actually inform many people.

    They do not like having their monopoly on disinformation threatened.

    The true colors of the American Left are exposed, as a camp that claims to have a monopoly on caring about poor/brown people and claims to hate nationalism is now aggressively campaigning to save “even one life” in America, obsession over winning the giant international scoreboard that is our COVID-19 death tolls, no matter how many poor/brown third-worlders die as a consequence.

  9. Population density says nothing about the concentration of the population. Sweden has vast areas where no one lives. Russia also has low population density, but nobody lives in Siberia and many people live in crammed apartment blocks in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  10. We have a sign here at the entrance of the large local hospital “Heroes work here”. I know from the local data, that in all the months they treated no more than couple of dozens COVID patients, while properly clothed in several layers of protective gear walking empty hallways (all elective procedures just restarted a week ago). But not even a quarter a mile down we have Walmart, that is perpetually packed, workers there barely covered while interacting with thousands folks a day and no recognition whatsoever. Totally bizarre luck of appreciation all around for the “great unwashed”, no cheering, no colorful signs for them from anybody. Another ugly manifestation of elitisms.
    I personally make a point to thank every grocery or hardware store employee I interact with, if anyone can be considered a “hero” in all this debacle, they deserved this more than anybody.

  11. I couldn’t agree more. The NHS is a taxpayer funded service----a “service,” not a deity. We are all being eased into the religion of state worship.

  12. Three months ago Sweden was a Socialist paradise. The left loved the place.

    Now Sweden is a Libertarian paradise. The left hates the place.

    I wish that they would make up their minds. After all, they need to tell their acolytes what to think :grinning::grinning:

  13. I still love it. I’m glad they’ve adopted a different approach than other countries – as cold and clinical as this may sound, the data will be useful in preparing for future pandemics.

  14. I agree on several counts.

    I hear what Fauci says. But the problem is, when you are a hammer, everything is a nail. Fauci is a doctor. He has devoted his life to saving lives. So he sees the disease and only the disease. It’s his nail. Fauci’s ideal response would be an absolute quarantine until a vaccine is available or the virus completely disappears.

    What Fauci does not see is the economic toll created by shutting down the economy. He does not see the real health issues that develop when the economy is shut down. He does not see the effect on children denied not only and education but necessary socialization.

    We HAVE to open the economy knowing that there is still risk, particularly to people my age. We have to trust the old farts (me) to take additional precautions until herd immunity can develop among the young.

    There is no easy safe choice here.

    Sweden shows us the path forward

  15. I can’t help but noticing (and I’m in my 60’s) that only 56 people in Sweden have died of covid who are under 50 and they never closed primary schools or childcare.

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