Sweden’s coronavirus death rate suggests its response isn’t great

You’d be forgiven for thinking Sweden had somehow found the secret to handling the coronavirus crisis without having to impose severe lockdowns.

Its total number of deaths, roughly 2,300 as of April 28, seems low, and it doesn’t look anywhere near as chaotic as, say, New York City. It’s no surprise, then, that the New York Times in a Tuesday story made the case that “to a large extent, Sweden does seem to have been as successful in controlling the virus as most other nations.”

“Sweden’s experience would seem to argue for less caution, not more,” the story also said.

But that sentiment obfuscates some very real problems with Sweden’s approach — problems that become much clearer once you zoom out.

The chart below, which I made using the Our World in Data website’s coronavirus statistics, helps put Sweden’s situation in perspective. It compares countries’ rates of coronavirus deaths per 1 million people.

As the chart shows, Sweden is actually faring worse than other Scandinavian nations and even worse than the United States, which has the highest number of confirmed total cases in the world. (It’s important to note that other nations — such as Spain and Italy — not included in the chart have higher death rates per million people than Sweden.)

The reason for Sweden’s high death rate has to do with the government’s policies.

Following the advice of the country’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, the Swedish government chose not to impose strict lockdowns, curfews, or major border closings because the government felt it would hurt the economy and would only push the crisis further down the road.

“Locking people up at home won’t work in the longer term. Sooner or later, people are going to go out anyway,” Tegnell told reporters this month.

And while experts say the vast majority of Swedes followed the government’s social distancing guidelines and voluntarily stayed home, those who continued to drink at bars and shop at stores likely spread the disease around.

The New York Times even noted what Sweden’s public health officials now admit: That “more than 26 percent of the 2 million inhabitants of Stockholm will have been infected by May 1.”

That’s still higher than New York City’s infection rate, which New York state officials estimate could be around 21.2 percent based on recent antibody testing (though these numbers are still preliminary and based on just one study).

Where Sweden does compare favorably to the US is the country’s death rate when compared to New York City’s (not the whole US). About 12,000 reported deaths as of April 28 in a city of 8 million is surely worse than 2,300 deaths in a country of 8 million.

But there are three main reasons why the Big Apple would be worse off than the entire country of Sweden, experts say.

The first is population density: New York City has over 38,000 people per square kilometer, while Sweden has just 25 people — meaning it’s harder to socially distance.

Second, some hospitals in New York City were overwhelmed while Sweden still has about 250 hospital beds unoccupied. There are indications, though, that the hospital surge in New York City is declining.

Finally, there is significantly more international travel to New York City than there is to Sweden, which means there were more opportunities for people from countries suffering from severe outbreaks to spread the virus to the city than to the European country.

But when zooming out, it’s clear that Sweden as a whole is worse off than the US as a whole. That could, of course, change down the line, but any current arguments that Sweden got its outbreak response right are premature at best and dangerous at worst.

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