When the results of the first Covid wave began to be reported in the media last summer, there were various ways to measure the devastation. One way to look at the pandemic was to focus on how many people died – more than half a million around the world at the end of June. Another was to try to assess the complex effects of the various measures taken to combat the virus. When many of the features in society were frozen, people struggled – especially the most vulnerable.
For those who preferred the first perspective, there was plenty of data to lean on. Accurate death records were kept in most countries, especially the rich, and presented in stylish graphs on various websites: Johns Hopkins University website, Worldometer, Our World in Data.
It was much more difficult to measure the consequences of the shutdowns. They appeared here and there as scattered anecdotes and figures. Perhaps the most striking data point came from the United States: by the end of the school year, a total of 55.1 million students had been affected by school closures.
But still, the death toll was more interesting. In early summer, The New York Times had published a front page completely without pictures. Instead, it contained one long list of people who had died: thousand names, followed by their age, place and a very short description. “Alan Lund, 81, Washington, conductor with ‘the most amazing ear'”; “Harvey Bayard, 88, New York, grew up across the street from the old Yankee Stadium.” And so on.
It was The New York Times‘s national editor who had noticed that the death toll in the United States was about to exceed 100,000 and therefore wanted to create something memorable – something you could look back on in 100 years to understand what society went through. The front page reminded me of what a newspaper might look like during a bloody war. It brought to mind how American television stations had reported the names of fallen soldiers at the end of each day during the Vietnam War.
The idea spread quickly around the world. A few weeks later, in Sweden, the front of Today’s news was covered with 49 color photographs under the words: “One day, 118 lives.” These 118 people had died on April 15. It was the highest daily death toll recorded in the entire spring. Since then, it has been steadily declining.
When epidemiologist Johan Giesecke read the newspaper, it made him a little puzzled. Every ordinary day, 275 people die in Sweden, he thought. He had spent a large part of his life studying just that: where, when and how people die. The way the world currently thought of death was completely foreign to him. When he attended an online conference in Johannesburg, one participant had pointed out that in that year alone, more than 2 million people in the world had died of hunger. During the same period, Covid-19 had claimed between 200,000 and 300,000 lives.
Giesecke felt as if the world was going through one self-inflicted global catastrophe. If things had just gone their way, it would have been over by now. Instead, millions of children were deprived of their education. In some countries, they were not even allowed to go to playgrounds. From Spain came stories of parents sneaking into parking garages with their children to let them run around.
Tens of thousands of surgeries had been postponed by the health service. Screens for everything from cervical cancer to prostate cancer were put on ice. This did not just happen in other countries. Sweden had also seen its fair share of strange decisions. The Swedish police had not tested drivers for negligence for several months, for fear of the virus. This year, it did not seem quite as serious if someone was killed by a drunk driver.
It became clear that the media, politicians and the general public had difficulty assessing the risks of the new virus. For most people, the numbers mean nothing. But they saw how healthcare was overwhelmed in several countries. They heard testimonies from nurses and doctors.
Here and there in the world – in Germany, Great Britain, Ecuador – people had been go out on the streets to protest against the rules, laws and decrees that restrict their lives. Reports came from other countries that people were starting to ignore the restrictions. But the strength of the resistance remained weaker than Giesecke had expected. There had been no French revolution, no global backlash.
One explanation for the citizens ‘passivity may have been the coverage of the virus’ mortality in the media; it seemed as if they had been given a non-contextualized picture of how serious the covid-19 pandemic really was. During the spring and summer, the global consulting firm Kekst CNC had asked people in five major democracies – Britain, Germany, France, the United States and Japan – about all sorts of things related to the virus and society. The sixth country in the survey was Sweden. Sweden was much smaller than the other countries, but was included due to the unique path taken through the pandemic.
The questions were about everything, from people’s opinions about the authorities’ measures, to the situation in the labor market and whether they thought that their governments provided sufficient support to the business community. The twelfth and final topic of the survey included two questions: “How many people in your country have had the coronavirus? How many people in your country have died?” While more and more reliable figures came in regarding the actual deadliness of Covid-19, a study was now done of the number of people thought had died.
In the United States, the average guess in mid-July was that 9% of the population had died. If that were true, it would have been the death toll of nearly 30 million Americans. The death toll was thus overestimated by 22,500% – or 225 times over. In the United Kingdom as well as in France and Sweden, the death toll was a hundredfold exaggerated. The Swedish guess of 6% would have corresponded to 600,000 deaths in the country. At that time, the official death toll was over 5,000 and approached 6,000.
Reporting the average guess was perhaps a bit incorrect, as some people responded with very high numbers. In the UK, the most common response was that around 1% of the population had died – in other words, much less than the average of 7%. But it was still a figure that overestimated the number of deaths more than ten times. By this time, 44,000 Britons had been registered dead – or about 0.07% of the population.
The breakdown of the figures further showed that more than a third of Britons responded with a figure of over 5% of the population. This would have been like killing the entire population of Wales. That would have meant many times more Britons dying of Covid-19 than during World War II – including civilian and military casualties.
The war rhetoric waved by world leaders had had an impact. Their citizens really believed that they were living through a war. Then, two years into the pandemic, the war ended. There were no longer any foreign journalists at the Swedish Public Health Agency’s press conferences. No Americans, Britons, Germans or Danes asked why schools were open or why the country had not been locked up.
This was largely due to the fact that the rest of the world had quietly started living with the new virus. Most of the world’s politicians had given up hope of both closures and school closures. And yet, given all these articles and TV features that had been produced about Sweden’s foolish libertarian approach to the pandemic, given how certain data sources had been referenced daily by the world media, this sudden disinterest was strange.
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. When it came to the restrictions that the rest of the world had placed so much faith in – school closures, closures, face masks, mass tests – Sweden had more or less gone in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the results did not differ significantly from the results of other countries. It became increasingly clear that the policy measures taken against the virus were of limited value. But no one talked about this.
From a human perspective, it was easy to understand why so many were reluctant to meet the figures from Sweden. For the inevitable conclusion must be that millions of people had been denied their freedom and that millions of children had had their education interrupted, for nothing.
Who would want to be complicit in that?
Republished from Unheard