Sweden has been held up as a mirror to New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19, and as their death rate climbs, New Zealand, along with many countries, congratulate themselves on their approach and the decision to go into lockdown. As half Swedish, I can understand many of the different methods both New Zealand and Sweden take on over many various issues. I’d argue that most of the time, when asked who has a more forward-thinking approach, Sweden would win hands down. When it comes to COVID-19, very few would maintain that Sweden was still more forward-thinking and give New Zealand the title. What many people from many countries around the world believe about Sweden’s approach is that they didn’t take the virus seriously enough, though some actions could be confused with this; such as no lockdown, free travel throughout the country and daycare and primary schools remaining open, but if you look into it, Sweden’s “relaxed” approach was less relaxed but more calculated and targeted than many people are giving the Swedish government credit for.
Sweden has always been seen as one of the more socially leaning democratic states. In line with these ideals is the “Socialdemokraterna” or social democratic party of Sweden, who is currently in power. The social side of the party is mainly visible with redistributing money via notoriously high taxes. However, less well known is that when given a chance, the government also puts faith in and provides power to the people. In this instance, this faith in the people was behind the decision not to institute a mandatory lockdown but to keep people in jobs and the economy open. This is what the world has focused on, but what has not been widely publicized is that while avoiding a full lockdown, Sweden has been functioning in a sort of NZ level 2 equivalent. Those who were sick or at concerned that they were becoming sick were given two weeks of paid leave payable from the first day home. This is a change to usual regulations that require one unpaid day before sick pay and requires a medical certificate after three days. Those who contracted the virus are forced to stay home unless they needed medical assistance. Those who could work from home were asked to do so, with workplaces and Universities and most upper secondary schools working remotely. Workplaces that remained open were asked to instill social distancing, and while restaurants remained open, they were allowed small group table service only – sound familiar? Some citizens do not agree with Sweden’s approach in New Zealand, but many also do agree with it. Quoting Anders Tegnell, Chief Epidemiologist at the Swedish Public Health Department, “the Swedish public has been very supportive. I get many emails from people encouraging us to keep going.” He has also commented on the idea of a lockdown and said, “Basically, because the tradition was not to do that – to work voluntarily instead.”
In the global eye, Sweden’s strategy of letting the public have power and take responsibility has backfired. But with many of Swede’s enjoying the sense of freedom most of the world can’t enjoy, is there an element of jealousy? Or perhaps it merely makes it easier to justify the enormous sacrifices made here by businesses and individuals if we perceive our approach to be the only way. While there is no doubt that the Swedish death rate from COVID-19 is high, it is no higher than that in December 1993, or if accounting for population January 1996 or 2000. These years, mortality rates have also been increased by deadly flu epidemics. However, they did not attract nearly as much attention as COVID-19. The Swedish approach has this very much at the forefront of their decision making. To the Swedes, COVID-19 is another nasty strain of flu, and then it is not worth shutting down a whole economy for that. This begs the question, why is the maintenance of the economy forefront of the Swedish minds? We should value life over money is something you hear more and more often. However, many Swedes argue that money is life. That economic depression and the lockdown have had wide-reaching consequences, increased rates of depression and suicide are a couple of them. There will also be other implications – children locked down in violent homes, children going hungry who are otherwise fed at least one full cooked meal each day, and people who do not receive early and preventative medical treatment. Two weeks ago, Stuff published an article that estimated that more than 400 people will die of cancer in NZ due to delay in diagnosis due to lockdown.
The economy has not been the only thing to suffer in NZ under lockdown. It has also taken a toll on our society. There is not a day that goes by where there are no accounts in the News of families split by border closures, that we have suspended our invitation to refugees – perhaps the most needy people in the world – and that there are also many stories heard in the media of children whose parents could not move between parents due to unwieldy bubble sizes created by multiples. These things were all reasonably anticipated. But what about the gentleman with Parkinson’s disease who lives around the corner from me, who without his regular gym and physio sessions has seen his muscles waste away during the lockdown. They will never return, and neither will the same quality of life.
While the Swedes themselves have never spoken of pursuing herd immunity, it follows that in a country where they are not attempting to stamp out community transmission, herd immunity was considered a fortunate side-effect, if not the goal of the exercise. The principle of herd immunity is that if it is enough people are immune to sickness, virus, or disease, then it won’t to be able to spread quickly and ultimately die off or at least no longer be a significant problem. This line of thinking is widely used for even the most infectious diseases. Examples of herd immunity working are things such as measles, chickenpox, mumps, and even polio, which are all globally no longer a threat, all thanks to herd immunity. There are two main ways of creating herd immunity. The first is through widespread vaccines, which is how many diseases are slowed and eventually stopped, things such as Polio, significant strains of influenza, Hepatitis A and B and Whooping Cough because with enough vaccinated members of the population the virus cannot hop from one person to another. Thus, with widespread vaccination, we are virtually guaranteed to stop disease; the question is, therefore, becomes long will it take for scientists to develop a vaccine. What will the impact on the economy and society be? The other way of creating herd immunity is by letting everyone get the virus and recover, and then over time, the population becomes immune after recovering. This can be seen in illnesses such as Chicken-pox and shingles. The problem with COVID-19 is that with the current knowledge we have about the virus people can get it and recover and then get it again and recover in at this point what appears to be an endless cycle, which means that herd immunity does not arise out of either community transmission or vaccination. Therefore, Sweden’s policy to pursue a society that is compatible with the presence COVID-19 may be a more sustainable goal than that of a COVID free country, especially for a country that does not have the luxury of having any land border. How long will we need to keep our borders closed?