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It’s not too late to learn from Sweden‘s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the first phase winds down and the results can be tallied, it is clear that Sweden is in an enviable position both economically and medically.
Rather than relying on speculative models to justify draconian policies, Sweden’s public health officials noted the lack of evidence that social isolation mandates could reduce COVID-19 deaths over the full course of the virus. Plainly put, you can change the timing of the damage but you can’t make the virus go away.
So Sweden pursued a policy of targeted precautions rather than the shotgun approach adopted in the US. Only the most vulnerable were isolated. There was no lockdown. Businesses stayed open. Students attended school. Patients continued to receive non-COVID medical care.
So what happened? Swedish hospitals never suffered the crush of ICU patients predicted by our experts if we were to adopt such “reckless“ policies as they did. It turns out that shutting down the economy and practically imprisoning the young and healthy weren’t necessary to flatten the curve.
Sweden recently reported 265 deaths per million population, less than many of its locked down European neighbors, but slightly more than the 204 reported at that time in the US, (where multiple reports of overcounting are emerging).
Sweden has a more elderly population than the US and didn’t initially do a good job of protecting nursing homes. As a result, 90% of Sweden’s deaths were over 70 years old, half were over 86, just one percent were under 50. Age adjusted, Sweden‘s case rates and death rates are comparable to ours, maybe better.
That’s where the similarities end. Sweden, because they didn’t isolate their non-vulnerable population, is positioned to achieve herd immunity possibly as early as this month. We are facing a probable “second wave“ sweeping through our non-immune, formerly quarantined population as we return to normalcy.
Unlike pretty much everywhere else, Sweden isn’t facing the tough choices of when and how to end social isolation. They don’t have to select who goes free and whose civil liberties to violate.
Moreover, Sweden’s economy suffered nothing like the crippling damage inflicted on ours. Their recovery will be much quicker and easier. There will be no deluge of the “deaths of despair” that accompany economic catastrophes. They won’t have to cope with a new mountain of government debt.
It’s easy to second-guess now, although many of Dr. Fauci‘s worst recommendations were first-guessed at the time. What’s done is done. But there’s no excuse for missing the boat again, now that the outcomes of the contrasting strategies can be seen.
Unfortunately, many experts are choosing to nitpick Sweden’s success, seeing it is an affront. So we still have governors like Cuomo and Newsom claiming that, based on Fauci’s advice, they can’t end the lockdown until it is “safe“ and we know there will be no increase in cases.
But we know now that’s not necessary or even possible. We were told we were at war with the virus and our main weapon, for now, was isolation. But viruses can’t be eliminated by permanently denying them hosts. At some point life has to go on.
Only immunity can provide protection. In the absence of a vaccine, that means herd immunity, accepting that the virus will run its course, while protecting those likely to perish from it.
Another lesson is that experts should be consulted but not in charge, Particularly when opining from models, rather than controlled experiments or experience, they’re often wrong. Moreover, they’re not qualified to determine whether following their advice is worth the economic and social costs. That’s a decision we all share.
Finally, we should have learned by now that government taking over our lives and throwing gobs of money at the problem doesn’t work. Rather than shutdowns and subsidies, we should have relied more on the personal decisions of informed citizens.
Because of our extreme risk aversion, we conducted a massive novel experiment, the first-ever attempt to defeat a viral epidemic by isolating millions of well people and shuttering business activity. We have squandered trillions. It’s time to move on.Published in