Maybe Sweden was right with its ‘mad experiment’

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It is possible that Sweden was right all along with what critics described as a “mad experiment” that would lead to catastrophe, writes Christopher Snowdon in The Daily Telegraph.

Snowdon writes:

There have been times during this pandemic that Iʼve felt as if my memory is playing tricks on me. Iʼm sure I remember scientists telling us that a second wave was inevitable. I could have sworn I saw a graph at the press briefings showing a scary bell curve of infections in the spring and an even scarier one in the winter. Iʼm sure I heard experts explaining that the only way COVID-19 would disappear would be when herd immunity was achieved, either through natural antibodies or vaccination.

Official documents reassure me that I am not going mad. The minutes from a Sage meeting in March say: “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of COVID-19 will cause a second peak.”

As far as I can tell, this is still their view. Suppressing a wintry virus during the sunniest spring on record could turn out to be no great achievement. The worst may be yet to come.

One country can look to the winter with less trepidation than most. Last week, a study suggested that 30% of Swedes have built up immunity to the virus. It would help explain why COVID-19 has been fizzling out in Sweden. If a measure of herd immunity also helps them avoid the second wave, Swedenʼs take-it-on-the-chin approach will be vindicated.

Not going into lockdown was described as “a mad experiment” by Marcus Carlsson of Lund University in March. Dr Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér of Swedenʼs Karolinska Institute accused the government of “leading us to catastrophe”, and predicted that the healthcare system would collapse unless a lockdown was introduced. Every model predicted an exponential rise in infections.

With half of humanity living under lockdown, photos of Swedes socialising in bars and restaurants seemed like communiqués from another dimension. Aside from a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, life carried on as normal. Children aged under 16 went to school. No one wore a mask. This, surely, was the calm before a terrible storm.

The catastrophe never arrived. As in most other European countries, Sweden saw a peak in COVID-19 deaths in the first half of April followed by a steady decline. Shown on a graph, the pattern of mortality is indistinguishable from that of many countries that locked down.

Its daily death toll rarely exceeded double figures and has been below 30 since mid-June. As in Britain, half the deaths were in care homes and two-thirds of those who died were aged 80 or over. Once it became clear that their apocalyptic prophecy had failed, critics of the Swedish approach turned to post hoc rationalisation. They cited low population density and a high rate of single person households as the explanation for Swedenʼs lucky escape. Some claimed that social distancing was a natural part of Swedish culture or that Swedes did not talk enough for virus droplets to be transmitted.

Some of this was true and much of it was nonsense, but none of it had been mentioned in March when Sweden was said to be doomed. It is now considered gauche to compare Sweden to Britain, Italy, Spain or any other country that had a higher death rate. You are only allowed to compare it to its immediate neighbours where the death rate is lower. Mention the UK or, heaven forbid, Belgium (which locked down a week before the UK and has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world) and you will be told that they should have locked down sooner. The proposition becomes unfalsifiable. Heads they win, tails you lose.

The goalposts have shifted. The purpose of lockdowns is no longer to protect health systems, but to prevent death at any cost. New Zealand has managed to eradicate the virus for the time being, but only by kissing goodbye to its biggest export industry – tourism – which sustains 10% of its economy and fourteen per cent of its workforce.

Isolated from the rest of the world, it is a prisoner to a vaccine that may never be found. Australia thought it had beaten the virus, but parts of Victoria are back under lockdown after new cases were found. There have been resurgences in the US, Israel and South Africa, to name but three.

Winning the battle against the first wave may prove to be like the invasion of Iraq, merely a prelude to a long war of attrition that wastes more money and lives. If there is hope of avoiding a second wave, it lies in contact tracing, but the NHS Test and Trace remains unproven in summer, let alone winter, and businesses will still be faced with crippling social distancing rules and – worst of all – the publicʼs fear of going out.

For all the talk of “Super Saturday”, only 5% of us went to the pub last weekend. A recent survey found that only 21% of us would be comfortable eating in a restaurant.

And what of the costs? Sweden will not be unscathed by the global recession. Its GDP is expected to decline by 5.3% this year. But GDP is expected to fall by 8.7% in the Eurozone, by 9.7% in Britain and by more than 10% in Italy, France and Spain.

Sweden has not put its childrens’ education on hold. It has not put its citizens under soul-sapping house arrest. If a vaccine goes into production by autumn, the Swedes will look reckless. But that is not going to happen – and winter is coming

Full report in The Daily Telegraph



See also

Herd immunity assumptions challenged by latest research

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