A war that can't be won: What can we learn from Sweden's example?

Jan 06, 2022


9:14 PM

Regardless of measures to 'flatten the curve,' 'defeat COVID,' or 'curb the spread of coronavirus,' the waves go up and down more-or-less uniformly, lockdown or no, vaccine or no

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Posted by Y Rabinovitz


With Omicron ripping through populations as if vaccines had never been invented, talk of herd immunity has suddenly become almost politically correct, even in Israel where pride in vast, swift coverage with Pfizer shots is even more endemic than the virus itself.

“The trend is upwards,” said Israel Health Ministry Director Professor Nachman Ash in a radio interview at the end of December. “Where will it stop? It’s hard to know. The price of herd immunity is very many infections, and that may end up happening. The numbers need to be high to reach herd immunity … But we don’t want to reach it by means of infections,” he added. “We want it to happen as a result of many people getting vaccinated.”

A few days later, however, Israeli public health officials were very publicly seeking to distance themselves from any suggestion that herd immunity might be the way to go, to the point that the government’s coronavirus commissar Professor Salman Zarka denied that the concept of herd immunity had any scientific basis. “Herd immunity means enormous infection rates, with seriously ill patients and consequences and complications,” Dr. Orly Greenfield, medical director of Israel’s national program to combat COVID told Israel National News. “We do not want herd immunity for an illness like this.”

What happened? Greenfield, continued, “We absolutely have not given up. We are continuing the war against the pandemic…” From the outset, this is how governments have termed their efforts to protect public health – in terms of war, battle, victory – or surrender. Obviously, in a war surrender is the same as losing. And that was how the one outlier in the global battle was viewed, namely Sweden. Sweden did not lock down along with the rest of Europe and was not just derided but actually vilified, almost as if its government was complicit in the murder of its citizens with its insistence that herd immunity was not just desirable but inevitable.

Two years have passed since then, and at the end of December, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) decided to take another look at Sweden and see how its approach of “let’s trust citizens to get this right themselves” has panned out.

During the first stage of the pandemic, up until October, 2020, “the number of overall cases and deaths in Sweden was low,” the BMJ admits. However, during the second wave in the winter of 2020-1, the country saw a “spike” in cases. So too, of course, did many other countries, locked down or otherwise. Many Swedes had lost their nerve by then, including the King who called his country’s handling of the pandemic a “failure.” The Prime Minister agreed; the government commissioned an inquiry into its COVID response – its conclusions, published in late 2021, were that the government had responded too slowly and insufficiently and that its preparedness had been “non-existent.”

So much for the first year of the pandemic. For its second year, the BMJ gives its cautious approval of Sweden’s “new pandemic powers,” even though in comparison with the sweeping powers claimed by other governments the Swedish kind were pretty mild, including recommendations rather than mandates to wear masks while using public transportation, and limits on crowding in public areas rather than closing places like gyms or parks altogether. All the same, according to the BMJ these measures “seemed to work … case numbers dropped and by the start of June, restrictions were removed gradually until all were lifted by the end of September.”

This period coincided with the vaccine rollout in Sweden; around 80 percent of the population there is now described as fully vaccinated. However, “the respite [provided by restrictions plus vaccination] has lasted barely two months,” the article continues. Cases started to rise again in November (just as they did in many other parts of the world), and Sweden reimposed restrictions, including, this time, vaccine mandates for large public indoor gatherings (but not for leisure or cultural activities). And the numbers are still rising.

The British Medical Journal’s conclusion is clearly stated: “The experts The BMJ spoke to are clear: Sweden’s situation remains precarious.” The problem is that if you asked those same “experts,” the situation in the rest of the world is also quite precarious. Omicron is spiking all over the place.

And that was also what Anders Tegnell, Swedish state epidemiologist, told the BMJ. “Swedish statistics do not differ from other European countries … Countries that went through lockdowns are not doing that much better … After two years of pandemic, Sweden does not stand out. We are not the best, but we are definitely not the worst.”

Enough of the discussion and time for some facts, courtesy of OECD Health Statistics 2021. Here we have a guide to “excess deaths,” namely the proportional increase in deaths in 2020 in comparison to the average of the five preceding years. Here we see Sweden doing rather well indeed, and only slightly behind its Scandinavian neighbors which locked down far more harshly and for much longer.



The European Union also provides statistics regarding excess mortality right up to October, 2021. Two facts stand out when looking at the graph below. The first is that regardless of measures taken to “flatten the curve,” “defeat COVID,” or “curb the spread of coronavirus,” the waves go up and down more-or-less uniformly, lockdown or no, vaccine or no. The second fact is that Sweden has done much better than most other countries. For clarity, just four are pictured here; Finland, Sweden, France, and Germany. Finland’s orange line runs mostly below – but not far below – the Swedish green line, but picks up toward the end. 



“This is what we are still struggling to understand,” Tegnell told the BMJ. “Some measures work in some places, but it is difficult to see patterns.” It certainly is hard to see man-made patterns, to find proof for the efficacy of measures taken by governments desperate to feel in control of the situation and “win the war against COVID.”

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