THE NORDIC countries share similar political models and cultural norms. So when covid-19 arrived in March 2020, many expected Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden to adopt similar policies. Instead Sweden took a loose approach, keeping restaurants and primary schools open and relying on citizens to observe social-distancing recommendations themselves. The others enforced strict lockdowns and relaxed them only as the epidemic receded.
That turned the Nordics into a natural experiment, testing which approach best preserves public health while minimising economic and social damage. Depending on the answer, you would expect that in 2021 either the Swedes would shift to their neighbours’ approach or vice versa. Which might it be?
At first the answer seemed clear. In spring 2020 Sweden’s infection rates rose far above its neighbours’. By mid-June its daily case rate, adjusted for population size, was ten or more times as high as those in Denmark, Finland and Norway. By the end of July Sweden had registered 5,729 deaths officially ascribed to covid-19. Denmark, with about half Sweden’s population, had recorded just 615. Sweden was seen as a covid-19 super-spreader. In June, when the others reopened their borders to European travellers, they kept them largely closed to Swedes.
Yet over the summer Sweden’s infection rate fell along with those in the rest of Europe. When the pandemic’s second wave arrived in late August, it was Denmark that had the worst outbreak in the Nordic region. About half of Sweden’s covid-19 deaths had been in care homes, a result mainly of negligence and bad luck rather than policy. Swedes were moving around more than citizens of other Nordic states, but otherwise their social-distancing practices were not too different. Had they been right all along?
Probably not. For the economy, eschewing a lockdown merely postponed the damage. Sweden’s GDP and employment rate stayed buoyant in March but dropped when infections rose, even as the other Nordics rebounded. Containing the virus allowed the others to reopen their schools quickly, too. Tests in August showed that even in hard-hit Stockholm, less than a quarter of residents had antibodies to covid-19, far from the rates needed for herd immunity.
In 2021 Sweden’s neighbours will not imitate its policies. The Nordics trust each other less than before. “It was worrying that we had to take different pathways,” says Mika Salminen of Finland’s Institute for Health and Welfare, which advises the government on covid-19 policies. If infection rates diverge again, there will be new travel restrictions. Another legacy is a hit to Sweden’s strict, hygienic image. “It’s very strange that Sweden is the big risk-taker among the Nordics—they’ve always been the safe player,” says Asne Seierstadt, a Norwegian journalist.
Yet the Swedes seem happy with their rebel status. In 2021 they will stick with their lenient measures, including shorter quarantines (of just seven days). The strategy retains overwhelming approval at home, and Anders Tegnell, the country’s infection-control chief, has become a national icon. The Nordic split shows that in public health, communication and trust are as important as results.■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition of The World in 2021 under the headline “Rebel Swedes”