A country whose coronavirus strategy was mocked by the rest of the world may be having the last laugh after recording an average of just one death from the disease a day.
Sweden infamously chose to ignore calls for heavy lockdowns and has kept most schools, bars and restaurants open throughout the pandemic.
While the Scandinavian nation’s death rate overall is one of the world’s highest – due to a huge spike at the beginning of the pandemic – the daily rolling average is now negligible.
That’s in contrast to Australia which is averaging 15 – 20 deaths each day.
One health official has been reported as saying it’s a “vindication” of Sweden’s controversial strategy. But other virus watchers are less convinced that Sweden should be a role model.
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By contrast, neighbouring Denmark, which had a much stricter lockdown, only saw a daily peak of 390 and 22 deaths.
However, Denmark, along with many other European nations, has seen cases swing back up again. Yet infections in Sweden have remained at around 200 or so a day for several months. That’s still a lot, but it’s a huge drop from where they were and crucially it’s stable and seemingly not leading to many fatalities.
Daily deaths sunk into single figures around mid-July and haven’t picked up since. Just a single death per day has become a regular occurrence.
Some are now openly saying that the reason might be because Swedes are increasingly getting herd immunity to the virus.
Epidemiologist and director of Sweden’s public health agency Johan Carlson said the country’s residents may be benefiting from not staying at home during the first wave.
“Our strategy was consistent and sustainable. We probably have a lower risk of [the virus] spreading than other countries.”
One health official said it was a “vindication” of a non-intrusive COVID-19 strategy, reported the UK’s Times newspaper.
By some estimates, up to 30 per cent of Swedes may have become infected with COVID-19, with the majority recovering.
However, research by the UK’s Royal Society of Medicine found that up to May only around 15 per cent of Sweden had become infected and it doubted herd immunity would be achieved.
At one point during the early phases of the pandemic, 19 per cent of Swedes who tested were positive for the virus. Now, despite 120,000 tests a week – a similar figure to New South Wales – a little more than one per cent are positive.
Deaths per population are currently lower than many of its neighbours. Although it should be noted Sweden’s total of 5842 coronavirus fatalities still puts it near the top 10 of countries with the worst death rates.
Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Dr Anders Tegnell, created and drove a unique national COVID-19 strategy.
Most schools and all shops and hospitality venues could remain open. When Australians were banned from supping a beer in a bar, residents of Stockholm were enjoying sundowners with their mates.
That’s not to say there were no restrictions on the nation’s 10 million citizens. People were barred from going to aged care homes, joining large gatherings and Swedes were encouraged to social distance – which it seems they did almost as much as everyone else.
“As a society, we are more into nudging: continuously reminding people to use measures, improving measures where we see day by day the that they need to be adjusted,” Dr Tegnell told the journal Nature in May.
STILL DOUBTS ABOUT SWEDEN
Dr Tegnell has said Sweden’s pre-vaccine approach to dealing with COVID-19 is more sustainable and preferable to rolling lockdowns and re-openings which he has labelled “disastrous in many ways”.
However, the approach has not met with universal acclaim with thousands perishing in aged care facilities.
Editor-in-chief of the Medical Journal of Au stra l iaDr Nick Talley told news.com.au the Swedish model has been a failure.
“In my view, the Swedish model has not been a success, at least to date,” he told news.com.au.
“A major contributor to the failure of the voluntary approach was spread of infection into homes for the elderly. Young people also appear to have been the least likely to alter their behaviour which may have contributed to community spread.
“Notably the economy was not saved from contraction by the approach. I am not convinced the Swedish model would be any more successful here in Australia, and arguably if compliance with voluntary recommendations was lower, the results would be worse – look at mask use in Sydney which is voluntary but has been strongly recommended.”
Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University, said neither a hard lockdown approach nor a more laissez faire attitude was likely to be the ideal approach to living with COVID-19.
“In my view, neither the New Zealand nor the Swedish approach is the way to go,” he told news.com.au last month.
“The trouble with Sweden is it’s had a lot of deaths; the trouble with New Zealand is elimination is difficult to achieve.
“What’s happening in NSW with contact tracing and stopping the spread is more like what we will have to do for the next few years.”
Even Sweden’s Dr Tegnell has cautioned against declaring Sweden a success story, just yet. It could take until next year to know if the approach was right, he said.
– Additional reporting by Rohan Smith.