Sweden, Swedes, Covid-19 & Herd Immunity

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Leave It To The Swedes To Be Responsible, Sensible & Competent.

Sweden and Covid-19
Swedish Flag Infected

Much is misunderstood about Sweden and its Swedes concerning their race towards herd immunity. From the outside they are labeled irresponsible socialists, yet if you peek just a glance around the corner you will discover an intensely innovative, nationalist, thoughtful society.

I’m moving to Sweden in a number of weeks and have a very cosy familiarity with the Swedes and their culture. My experience speaking with and learning from these people has taught me much. Through juxtaposing their experience with mine as an Australian born and raised I have realised some curiously narrow but nonetheless deep differences in attitudes towards responsibility within our cultures.

They are in total just a tick over ten million people yet have managed to produce an outsized cultural and commercial impact on the world.

For such a small nation Sweden has produced international car companies, Saab and Volvo. They created Skype, they created Spotify, and they created Ikea, one of the largest and most successful companies in the world. With only ten million people they are producing a hell of a lot. Oh, and don’t forget about ABBA or the Vikings.

I compare them with Australia. We have twenty three million people and Atlassian is our best international company. Sure we have plenty of mining and we likely some of the worlds best engineers because of it, but Holden is dead, and ACDC is legacy. What is it about Sweden’s culture and their ten million people that make them so exceptional? And more relevant to this article, how is that influencing their Covid-19 reaction?

I’m not going to make any sort of argument along political or socialist v capitalist lines as an explanation for Sweden’s exceptionalism. Rather, I am simply going to make the case that smaller works better and much of Sweden’s success actually bares root in a culture of competence.

As I write these sentences, the end of July 2020, Sweden is one of the only countries around the world who are reporting Q1 GDP growth amid the economic chaos left in the wind of the coronavirus. 

Lockdown Criticism

Sweden, Covid-19 And Herd Immunity
Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven

Sweden has been shellacked in the press for months on end as irresponsible and cruel for their decision to not lockdown.

As you know, or I’m sure you’re well aware, Sweden never officially went into a strict, enforced lockdown.

Rather, the state made the call that the public health system was sufficiently robust to a steep influx of cases and therefore drastic attempts to stop an inevitable spread would actually cause more harm than help.

Swedish Man Laughing
Happy Swede

At risk groups were encouraged to socially distance and a heavy dollop of individual responsibility was placed firmly on the shoulders of Swedish citizens.

Zlatan unhappy
Unhappy Swede

Several months later Sweden has reported some of the highest Covid-19 case numbers and deaths in Europe.

These daily statistics have been used as evidence of Sweden’s cruelty and incompetence as most countries measure their own numbers against Sweden as a measuring stick to say among other things…

“Look how good we are doing and look at Sweden! See how bad it would have been had we didn’t go into lockdown!”

The pundits flogging this argument are not lying, nor are they even accidentally incorrect. The figures are correct but the context is wrong. They are fooled by statistics and reporting on evidence found under only one lonely illuminated streetlight down a long, dark road. 

Why The High Numbers?

Sweden are experiencing significantly higher case numbers and deaths for primarily 3 reasons. 

1. Different Timelines

Rather than experiencing a nationwide case load over a 12-24 month period, Sweden have decided to get it out of the way and experience it over a much shorter 2-6 month period.

Sweden are making this decision by design because they are confident that their health system can handle the acute hit.

Graph highlighting Sweden robust medical system
More People Going To Hospital In Sweden

Comparatively, other nations have less confidence in their health and it’s ability to handle caseloads similarly. Look at Italy and New York early on, there was a fear that we were simply going to overrun the system.

Sweden are privileged to be able to make this decision since they have a nationalised, all encompassing health care system with small population that is quite rural.

This is firmly reason number 1 for Sweden having significantly higher death and case rates categorically over the last months. They simply shoved 2 years of caseloads into a few months. A fair measure for response effectiveness will be comparing gross numbers all together in 2 years time.

2. Accuracy In Testing

Sweden are testing everyone.

One of the greatest wool pulls of our times is that countries like Indonesia, Russia and China are trying to tell us that they are performing well because they have low case numbers. If you don’t test people then you won’t have any cases!

Trump famously said that he wanted testing to slow so the numbers out of the US might not look so bad. It is the morally responsible thing to do to test en mass (although not everyone can afford it).

Sweden can afford to test. And for this reason they are testing absolutely everyone. So combine point 1 with point 2 and we are painting a clear picture for the real reason why Sweden’s numbers have been comparatively worse to the rest the world. It is a story of partial statistics and not a story of incompetent governance.

3. Cause Of Death… Covid-19

Who is dying and how are they dying?

If you have a 100 deaths and 99 are from Covid then it’s very easy for you to paint a Covid is lethal picture. If 95 of those deaths were people in nursing homes and people who were susceptible to the first illness that came their way. You are now inflating the role of Covid and grossly under representing the fragility of the old. This point is true globally.

I’m not saying this as an excuse for not protecting the old. In fact, as you will see, it is exactly the opposite. One of the most heart wrenching occurrences throughout the last months has been the death of our grandmothers and grandfathers in nursing homes around the world. These people are living their last weeks without contact or anything close to social. My own girlfriends grandmother died last month in a Swedish nursing home and her last weeks were absent of everyone she knew. It pains me to think the sense of abandonment she must of felt.

You can see here how easily misled we are by cherry picked statistics. Like most things complex, we will only be able to paint a clear picture for how we should of reacted to this period with hindsight.

We will only truly know if Sweden made the right or wrong decision in 2 or 3 years when we look back arm in tow.

Culture År Kung

Allow me to riff raff on what I think is the most fundamental difference between the Swedish response to Covid-19 and the rest of the worlds. Contrary to popular belief, It’s not political and it’s not policy. It’s in the culture.

Swedes are generally some of the most level headed, responsible people you will ever meet. When they were told that the cost of not shutting down the economy was going to be that it meant they must act responsibly, they listened.

Australia V. Sweden

I can imagine Australians being given the same olive branch of responsibility and then subsequently, completely abusing the non enforced restrictions.

Two examples come to mind.

1 — When the Chinese rental bike companies came to Australia they experienced the immediate spike in popularity felt most places they were introduced. I remember using these services in Europe and noticing how I would never quite manage to park the bike back as neatly as my European comrades would.

The abuse these poor bikes got down under is, I imagine, unlike the treatment they received anywhere else in the world. Because there was no immediate authority threatening consequences, when people would park their bikes, or see them unlocked, they would pick them up and then hurl them into the most destructive places their creative minds could imagine. The memes blew up. People throwing bikes into trees, onto train tracks, in the middle of intersections, rivers, bushes, on top of cars, anywhere but where they were suppose to be allocated.

Australians were given the responsibility for putting the bike back properly with no authority watching over them to smack them on the wrist if they broke the rules… and we failed miserably.

2 — Similarly, one beautiful summer evening. I was eating cheese and drinking wine well into the night on the river Seine in Paris. There were hundreds of people lining the long grassy stretch of land that meets the river just south of Notre Dame.

There were no toilets, very few bins, and absolutely no authority telling people how to behave. Yet, to my astonishment, no-one was pissing into the river, no-one was encroaching on other peoples areas, people kept there music to themselves, no-one was intimidating anyone else. It was… unusual. And to cap it all off, as we were leaving I was scratching my head to see how little rubbish was leftover. Hundreds of people with food and drinks all sat around for several hours, got drunk, didn’t pay a dime, picked up there rubbish, and then left the area as they arrived.

I made the observation at the time to my French mate who organised the gathering just how astonished I was with how orderly everyone behaved. It was responsible while at the same time not boring at all.

I know with a degree of certainty that had that riverbank been lined with Australians then that privilege of beauty would have been abused.

Australian man with flags
For A Hard Earned Thirst…

I love how rambunctious Australian’s are.

It’s endearing how the first thing that comes into everyones mind when they are boozing next to a body of water, is…

“Who is the first person thats going to be thrown in there?”

The wild nature that I have come to expect from Australians does however, carry a downside. There is a symmetry between wildness and irresponsibility. And it is for this reason, I make the argument that the policy Sweden enforced is non replicable in Australia, and quite frankly most rest of the world as well.

Fundamental to the Swedish condition is a higher value for collective responsibility.

Why do the Swedes have this ingrained into their culture?

This is a really interesting question that I tackle elsewhere. It is too much to rehash out on this page, however if you are interested to sample my perspective on Swedish culture, read here.

Can Australia Handle Collective Responsibility?

My girlfriend (Emma) in the last few days has just returned to Stockholm.

Her immediate experience there juxtaposed against her most recent experience here in Sydney shone so much light on the cultural differences argument I have just made.

As I write this (23/07) Victoria (second most populous State in Australia) has just gone into lockdown again. They are experiencing a second wave of the C-Vi that is far more severe than the first.

Sydney has over six million people, and although the border between Victoria and Sydney is shut, you have to be naive beyond belief to be under the impression that there has been no spread north up. Naive despite this very clear warning from the south.

“Hey guys be careful, the second wave was much worse than the first, and we don’t know where it came from”

Sydneysiders, and more broadly Australians, just cannot make the collective decision to take our responsibility for each-other seriously. There is a terrible selfishness to our reaction in Sydney over the past week.

I am the only person wearing a mask when I go shopping. When I go to buy groceries the old, at risk population are out there, in peak hour, among the young. No mask, no sense of social distance, speaking closely with one another, touching five apples before they pick one.

The sense of ‘everyman for themselves’ is strong, and quite disheartening. This is despite, of course, us being fully aware of the consequences. But in Australia we know that the individual will be fine, and for that reason, I think no consideration is given to the collective. 

Current State Of Affairs In Stockholm

The Swedes are not under any official lockdown, people are working from home where they can, but business are open, and no overt restrictions have been put in place. However, with all that said, yesterday as Emma strolled through the streets of Stockholm, her city of birth, and she commented that it felt like a ghost town.

Midsommar pole and celebrations

There was barely a line for a coffee, barely a sole on the street. It’s not that the Swedes don’t want to be out, no, it’s the middle of Summer, they’d prefer nothing more than to be out. The reason why central Stockholm isn’t flooded with busy people is because Swedes are respecting the consequences a lack of social distance reaps.

No-one is telling them they cant be there, rather they are making the decision themselves that the group is more important than the self. Just like picking up your rubbish on the Seine. I could have left my plastic there, no-one would of noticed, I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble. But it is simply a case of doing the right the thing.

Notice The Difference

Why do the grocery stores not make more concessions to the experience of the old? Why are people not wearing masks? I think the answer is, unfortunately, simply one of selfishness. People I have asked these questions too will flippantly say,

“Im not gonna die, I’ll be fine”

And just like that, you dishonour your grandparents and put at risk the older generations. Yes. It is evident you wont die, but don’t spread something that could very well kill someone else. If you get a symptom, stay at home until it’s gone. Get tested.

The Swedes don’t need to be told this stuff. There is a fundamental difference between the way Australians and Swedes view personal responsibility.

This isn’t too make commentary on one having a superior ethic or morality. I’m not going to make a sweeping observation that loosely. I think so much of the political system, demographic and wealth of a place influence inordinately these actions. Swedes are a heavily distributed, wealthy, healthy, small population, Australians less so, (especially in the cities). 

What Was The Goal To Begin With?

Let us revisit the ultimate purpose for these Covid-19 measurements in the first place.

  1. Not to overburden the health system.
  2. Not to destroy the economy before we have a vaccine in place.

It is not so clear whether rolling lockdowns are the right way forward. Like we have said, some countries are more privileged to afford certain policies than others. India can not readily subsidise job loss for months at a time. Australia can. 

Dr Mike Ryan, President of WHO Emergencies Program surmised Sweden’s policy quite well in a statement made recently.

“What it (Sweden) has done differently is it has very much relied on its relationship with its citizenry and the ability and willingness of its citizens to implement self-distancing and self-regulate,” Ryan said. “In that sense, they have implemented public policy through that partnership with the population.”

It’s that ‘partnership with the population’ that separates nations.  It’s working for Sweden. A blanket universal response to Covid-19 is foolsome.

Countries are so wonderfully different that any policy designed for A is almost certainly not applicable to B. Lockdowns might not be the most effective universal response. Let’s learn from Sweden, let’s learn from Italy, let’s learn from India. 

The goal is to kill as few people as possible, so let’s maintain economic spending and support for healthcare systems, it’s the details in between where things get fuzzy.

graph highlighting covid19 deaths in sweden
Herd Immunity Is Good If You Can Do It – It Needs A Good Healthcare System.

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