May 11, 2020

Chart of the Week: Sweden’s COVID-19 response compared to its Nordic neighbours

by Fathom Consulting.

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Sweden’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak, which avoided a full lockdown unlike many of its European and Nordic neighbours, has been of particular interest to virologists and economists.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country have climbed above those of Denmark, Norway and Finland, which has led to criticisms of its response from some quarters. But Sweden has a larger population than those countries (Sweden 10.4 m; Denmark 5.8m; Norway 5.4m; Finland 5.5m), meaning that the number of confirmed infections are closer to those of their Nordic neighbours on a per capita basis (as of Friday 8 May, there were nearly 2500 confirmed cases per million in inhabitants in Sweden, compared to 1755 in Denmark).

There are, however, differences in the testing capabilities of the countries, meaning that COVID-19-related fatalities may be a more accurate measure of the extent of the virus in each country. And on this measure, Sweden fares significantly worse than its neighbours. At the time of writing it had recorded 300 deaths per million people, compared with fewer than 100 deaths per million in Denmark and just 39.7 per million in Norway.

Sweden is likely to face a less severe hit to its economic activity than many other countries, but the decision not to lock down has not been a panacea for the country’s economy either. Citymapper’s mobility index shows that on average, people are planning around 30% the amount of trips that they were before the outbreak, which suggests that many are choosing to stay at home (and most likely engaging in less economic activity) despite the government not ordering it. Also, with exports of goods and services accounting for around 45% of Sweden’s GDP, demand is being hit by external factors beyond the control of Sweden’s policymakers.

Finally, it is worth adding that one possible positive impact of Sweden’s approach is that its population may be closer to reaching herd immunity than many other countries, which could mean that any second wave might be less severe in Sweden than in other countries. But it is unclear whether this is true, given testing limitations and a lack of reliable widespread antibody tests.

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