Want to Escape a Lockdown? Try Sweden

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is known for showing no mercy to world leaders on carbon emissions. This week, she issued a different kind of call: To stay at home and slow the spread of Covid-19. “Follow the advice from experts and your local authorities... Remember to always take care of each other,” she wrote on Instagram, after she and her father experienced symptoms associated with the new coronavirus disease.

Under her country’s rules, she couldn’t be tested for Covid-19, and she technically doesn’t belong to a group that’s at risk — yet the 17-year-old used her platform to warn young people of the “enormous responsibility” they had in not spreading the disease to others.

The teenage Thunberg's advice is harder-hitting than her own government’s. Sweden — ranked the most “free” country in the world along with Finland and Norway — is dealing with a virus that’s seen swathes of Europe and the U.S. impose draconian lockdowns to force people to self-isolate.

The 10 million-strong Swedish population looks no more immune to it than its neighbors: Sweden has 2,510 cases and 42 deaths, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, compared with 2,916 cases and 12 deaths in Norway and 2,014 cases and 34 deaths in Denmark. Yet the Danes have shut schools and many businesses, banned large gatherings, and handed the government sweeping emergency powers; Sweden has gone down a more laissez-faire route. Schools, bars and cafes are still open. Social distancing is recommended, but only those aged over 70 or otherwise at risk are asked to stay home.

Why would a country take such a relaxed stance amid warnings of a brewing “storm” of hospitalized patients in Stockholm, where the military is helping out? There may be some economic self-interest at work. Sweden’s open and trade-dependent economy is already facing its worst recession in living memory, and its leaders probably don’t want to crush domestic demand on top of that. Swedish industrialist Jacob Wallenberg has warned that lockdowns can lead to 20%-30% unemployment rates.

But public trust is clearly at play, too. Sweden’s health authorities are highly politically independent — if their official view is that a lockdown is unnecessary, that resonates. Unlike in the U.K., where public fears played a big role in reversing a similar position held by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, some Swedes still seem more worried by the breakdown of order that shutting schools or panicked policy might provoke. There’s trust in the government, but also trust in other citizens to do the right thing.

Still, as inspiring as it may be to imagine 10 million people independently looking out for each other in a pandemic, there are some pretty glaring risks involved.

The problem with the Swedish strategy is twofold. First: It looks a lot like “wait and see,” as Torbjorn Isaksson, an analyst at Nordea in Stockholm, puts it. This isn’t just a bet on behavioral science but on viral science, namely how the infection curve will progress. Sweden seems to be hoping that the virus’s spread and severity won’t be as bad as the (admittedly divergent) worst-case scenarios; that hospitals won’t buckle under the pressure; and that existing social-distancing guidelines will be enough. “I’m deeply concerned,” virology professor Fredrik Elgh told state broadcaster SVT. Epidemiologist Joacim Rocklov told the FT it was “a huge experiment” that could go “crazily” wrong. Mathematician Marcus Carlsson, less politely, said it amounted to “Russian roulette.”

A wait-and-see approach might protect the economy and preserve social trust, but it isn’t leading to proactive alternatives that have worked elsewhere. For example, countries in Asia that controlled their outbreak without resorting to lockdowns — such as South Korea — radically stepped up testing, tracing and targeted quarantines as a more precise alternative method to slow the virus’s spread. Sweden has deployed tests but, on a per-capita basis, South Korea, Germany and Austria have done more, according to estimates compiled by Our World In Data.

The second problem is that, if the outbreak gets worse, trust in the individual may end up being a fragile and finite resource. One poll by newspaper Svenska Dagbladet this week suggested just over half of Swedes think the response has been “well balanced” — but that doesn’t seem so high considering that policy approval ratings soared to 93% in the U.K. and France after lockdowns were imposed. Far from the positivity of Thunberg’s post, a lot of social-media vitriol has been directed against the chief adviser in charge of Sweden’s coronavirus response. There’s a real chance that Sweden ends up shifting course with harder measures, only far too late, exposing it to all the costs it sought to avoid. On a year-to-date basis, in U.S. dollar terms, the Stockholm OMX benchmark equity index is down 24%, not far off the Euro Stoxx 50’s 27% fall.

Sweden is right to have resisted some of the other excessive and counterproductive measures seen elsewhere in Europe, such as arbitrary border closures that curb the flow of goods and people in a region that would benefit from more collective action. But there comes a time when even free societies need clear, strong direction from their leaders. Sweden would be well advised to avoid having its best-known teenager putting it to shame.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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