Sweden’s inconvenient covid victory

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By Johan Amderberg (photo – Stockholm)

When the results of the first Covid wave began to be tallied in the media there were different ways of measuring the devastation. One way of looking at the pandemic was to focus on how many people died.

In Sweden, the front page of Dagens Nyheter was covered with 49 colour photographs below the words: “One Day, 118 Lives.” Those 118 people had passed away on 15 April (2021). It was the highest daily death toll recorded throughout the (northern) spring. Since then, it had steadily been falling.

When the epidemiologist Johan Giesecke read the paper, it left him a little puzzled. On any normal day, 275 people die in Sweden, he thought. He’d spent a large part of his life studying just that: where, when, and how people die. The way the world currently thought about death was, to him, completely alien.

Giesecke felt as though the world was going through a self-inflicted global disaster. If things had simply been left to run their course, it would have been over by now. Instead, millions of children were being deprived of their education.

Tens of thousands of surgeries had been postponed by healthcare services. Screenings for everything from cervical to prostate cancer were put on ice. This wasn’t just happening in other countries. Sweden had seen its fair share of peculiar decisions, too. The Swedish police hadn’t tested drivers for insobriety for months, out of fear of the virus. It didn’t seem quite as serious if someone were to get killed by a drunk driver.

It was becoming obvious that the media, the politicians, and the public had a hard time assessing the risks of the new virus. To most people, the figures didn’t mean anything. But they saw the healthcare services getting overwhelmed in several countries. They heard the testimonies from nurses and doctors.

Here and there in the world — in Germany, the UK, Ecuador — people had been taking to the streets to protest the rules, laws, and decrees curtailing their lives. From other countries came reports that people were starting to flout the restrictions. But the force of the resistance remained weaker than Giesecke had expected.

One explanation for the citizens’ passivity might have been the coverage of the deadliness of the virus in the media; it seemed they had been fed a non-contextualised picture of how serious the Covid-19 pandemic really was.

During the Spring and Summer, the global consultancy firm Kekst CNC had asked people in five big democracies — the UK, Germany, France, the US, and Japan — about all kinds of things relating to the virus and society. The sixth country in the survey was Sweden. Sweden was a lot smaller than the other countries, but was included due to the unique path it was taking through the pandemic.

The questions were about everything, ranging from people’s opinions on actions taken by the authorities, to the state of the job market, and on whether they thought their governments were providing sufficient support to trade and industry. The twelfth and final topic in the survey contained two questions: “How many people in your country have had the coronavirus? How many people in your country have died?” At the same time as increasingly reliable figures were trickling in with regard to the actual deadliness of Covid-19, there was now a study of the number that people believed had died.

For anyone still interested, the results were impossible to deny. By the end of 2021, 56 countries had registered more deaths per capita from Covid-19 than Sweden. It was beginning to become increasingly clear that the political measures that had been deployed against the virus were of limited value. But no one spoke about this…

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