Is Sweden’s COVID-19 Policy ‘Relatively Rational’ or ‘Calamitous’?
Scott Atlas, the physican and Hoover Institution fellow who is now advising President Donald Trump on COVID-19, thinks Sweden’s approach to the disease, which has been notably less restrictive than the policies of other European countries, is “relatively rational” and “has been inappropriately criticized.” By contrast, The New York Times, which is worried about Atlas’ influence on the president, says Sweden’s policy has been “disastrous” and “calamitous.” That judgment seems premature if the goal is minimizing total COVID-19 deaths over the long term at an acceptable cost.
While Sweden avoided a general lockdown, the government did ban large public gatherings, close high schools and universities, and recommend physical distancing in bars and restaurants. It urged people to work at home if feasible and avoid unnecessary travel or social events “attracting many people at the same time.” It advised people older than 70 to stay at home as much as possible. As Atlas sees it, Sweden “did appropriate social distancing guidelines, very important, instead of decrees and confinement….What they said was these are the guidelines. We’re not gonna do a total lockdown. We believe you understand the seriousness of this.”
How did that work out? Sweden’s overall COVID-19 numbers look pretty bad. According to Worldometer’s tallies, Sweden so far has seen 576 COVID-19 deaths per 1 million people, which is much higher than the rates in three neighboring countries that imposed more sweeping restrictions on social and economic activity: Denmark (108), Finland (61), and Norway (49). Yet several other European countries have fared worse than Sweden despite lockdowns, including Belgium (853), Italy (587), Spain (623), and the U.K. (611). And in the United States, where all but a few governors imposed broad lockdowns last spring, per capita COVID-19 deaths (570 per million) are about the same as in Sweden.
One can always argue that lockdowns would have been more effective in those countries if only they had been imposed earlier or lifted later and more cautiously, or that things would have been even worse without those restrictions. But on the face of it, countries such as Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. inflicted a lot of economic and social pain on their citizens without any obvious payoff in terms of fewer deaths.
What about the trajectories of cases and deaths? In Sweden, the seven-day average of newly identified cases peaked in mid-to-late June and has since fall
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