STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden, which has avoided the strict lockdown that has suffocated much of the global economy, emerged from 2020 with a smaller increase in its total mortality than most European countries, shows an analysis of official data sources.
Experts in infectious diseases warned that the results could not be interpreted as evidence that suspensions were unnecessary, but acknowledged that they could indicate that Sweden’s overall attitude to fighting the pandemic had merits worth studying.
Over the past week, Germany and France have extended shutdowns in rising coronavirus cases and high death rates, measures that economists say will further delay the economic recovery.
While many Europeans have accepted lock-in as a last resort, given that the pandemic cannot be controlled by other means, the movements in recent months have led to protests in London, Amsterdam and elsewhere.
Sweden has meanwhile mostly relied on voluntary measures that focus on social distancing, good hygiene and targeted rules that have kept schools, restaurants and shops largely open – an approach that has greatly polarized Swedes but spared the economy from much of the impact that affected elsewhere in Europe.
Preliminary data from the EU statistical office Eurostat compiled by Reuters showed that Sweden had 7.7% more deaths in 2020 than the average for the previous four years. Countries that chose several periods of strict lockdown, such as Spain and Belgium, had so-called excess mortality of 18.1% and 16.2%, respectively.
21 of the 30 countries with available statistics had higher excess mortality than Sweden. However, Sweden did much worse than its Nordic neighbors, with Denmark registering only 1.5% excess mortality and Finland 1.0%. Norway had no excess mortality at all in 2020.
Sweden’s excess mortality also emerged at the low end of the spectrum in a separate compilation by Eurostat and other data published by the UK’s Office for National Statistics last week.
That analysis, which included an adjustment to take into account differences in both age structures and seasonal mortality patterns in the analyzed countries, placed Sweden in 18th place in the ranking 26. Poland, Spain and Belgium were at the top.
Sweden’s epidemiologist Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, a largely unknown figure before the pandemic that became internationally known as the figure for the Swedish response, told Reuters that he thought the information raised doubts about the use of lockdowns.
“I think people will probably think very carefully about these total shutdowns, how good they really were,” he said.
“They may have had an effect in the short term, but when you look at it throughout the pandemic, you become more and more hesitant,” says Tegnell, who has received both death threats and flowers as a sign of appreciation.
Other health experts warn that interpreting data on excess deaths is fraught with risks of ignoring important variables.
“We all need to be really careful about interpreting death data in COVID -19, regardless of the source – none of them are perfect,” Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told Reuters.
“They ask a question about whether Sweden’s strategy was actually relatively successful. They really raise that question, he says and comments on data that was first published in the Swedish media and checked by the Swedish Statistics Office.
Keith Neal, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, also advised caution.
He cited a number of factors such as age structure and general health of a population, average household size and whether a country had megacity travel as important.
Sweden’s share of people over the age of 80 was 5.1% at the beginning of 2019, lower than the EU average of 5.8% but on a par with the United Kingdom and higher than Norway and Denmark.
Sweden’s population is also generally healthier than the EU average with an expected life expectancy of 82.6 in 2018, compared with an average of 81.0 years in the EU.
Sweden’s strategy has been heavily criticized by some at home and abroad for being ruthless and not enough to protect vulnerable groups from the disease.
However, 43% of Swedes have high or very high confidence in how the pandemic is handled, while 30% have low or very low confidence, according to a new survey.
The Swedish government and health authority have admitted that they failed to protect Sweden’s elderly but claimed that they did what they could to suppress the disease, while taking into account the general health of the population.
Sweden’s official deaths from COVID-19 are more than 13,000, although some people may have died of causes other than the disease.
Further reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Kate Kelland in London; editing by Mark John and Toby Chopra