EPIDEMICDid Sweden’s Controversial COVID Strategy Pay Off? In Many Ways It Did – but It Let the Elderly Down

By Emma Frans

Published 16 August 2022

Sweden’s approach to COVID was controversial, with some calling it “the Swedish experiment.” But almost two-and-a-half years after the pandemic began, what can we say today about the outcomes of this “experiment”?

As much of the world shut down early in the COVID pandemic, Sweden remained open. The country’s approach was controversial, with some calling it “the Swedish experiment”. But almost two-and-a-half years after the pandemic began, what can we say today about the outcomes of this “experiment”?

First, let’s recap what Sweden’s strategy looked like. The country largely stuck to its pandemic plan, originally developed to be used in the event of an influenza pandemic. Instead of lockdowns, the goal was to achieve social distancing through public health recommendations.

Swedes were encouraged to work from home if possible and limit travel within the country. In addition, people aged 70 or older were asked to limit social contact, and people with COVID symptoms were asked to self-isolate. The goal was to protect the elderly and other high-risk groups while slowing down the spread of the virus so the healthcare system wouldn’t become overwhelmed.

As the number of cases surged, some restrictions were imposed. Public events were limited to a maximum of 50 people in March 2020, and eight people in November 2020. Visits to nursing homes were banned and upper secondary schools closed. Primary schools did, however, remain open throughout the pandemic.

Face masks were not recommended for the general public during the first wave, and only in certain situations later in the pandemic.

During spring 2020, the reported COVID death rate in Sweden was among the highest in the world. Neighboring countries that implemented rapid lockdown measures, such as Norway and Denmark, were faring much better, and Sweden received harsh criticism for its lax approach.

But defenders of the Swedish strategy claimed it would pay off in the long run, arguing that draconian measures were not sustainable and that the pandemic was a marathon, not a sprint.

So Did Sweden’s Approach Pay Off?
Let’s look at excess mortality as a key example. This metric takes the total number of deaths and compares this figure with pre-pandemic levels, capturing the wider effects of the pandemic and accounting for incorrect reporting of COVID deaths.

Although Sweden was hit hard by the first wave, its total excess deaths during the first two years of the pandemic were actually among the lowest in Europe.

The decision to keep primary schools open also paid off. The incidence of severe acute COVID in children has been low, and a recent study showed that Swedish children didn’t suffer the learning loss seen in many other countries.