Sweden chose ‘herd immunity’ – Australia didn’t

Sweden chose the wrong strategy

Considering how almost universally admired the Nordic countries are, Sweden has broken ranks with its neighbours, in the manner in which it has responded to the pandemic. The country has dealt with the Covid-19 virus very badly, and the proof that this is so, is its current death rate. It is close to the world’s worst.

According to the World Health Organisation, “a well-functioning healthcare system requires a steady financing mechanism, a properly-trained and adequately-paid workforce, well-maintained facilities, and access to reliable information to base decisions on.” Based on those criteria, Sweden has a modern, well-equipped, and funded, health system. It is at least the equal of Australia’s.

How does Sweden’s approach differ from ours?

It is very simple. Sweden did not lock-down. It relied on the opinion of one health bureaucrat, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, of the National Institute of Public Health, to formulate its response. It also relied on the innate good sense of its citizens, to voluntarily apply social distancing. Initially Mr Tegnall believed that it would not spread from China. Later on, he believed that contact tracing of individual cases coming from abroad, would be an effective method of stopping the contagion.

The Government, led by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, continued to follow his advice; it was more comfortable in those early days, and chose not to legislate for social distancing. Later, at the end of March, as the pandemic claimed more lives, it limited gatherings, from 500 down to 50, and then legislated penalties for non-compliance. It also shut down visits to aged care facilities, because there were infections at close to half of them.

It looks very like Boris Johnson’s early mis-steps in the U.K., except that they corrected their direction even more belatedly than the British. One crucial difference is that they do not seem shy about mentioning ‘herd immunity’. The Swedish Government is now claiming that it is approaching that point. At what cost? Well, that would be 1540 deaths, and counting. The death rate per million citizens is 151. Australia’s is 3.

Those bearing the burden for that herd immunity are the elderly. Swedes are at last awake to this fact, and they are not happy. The Swedish Government has listened, and is desperately playing catch-up.

Why discuss Sweden?

I mention Sweden because there is a rising impatience with the lock-down, here. We are all tired of isolation, and grumpy that we are not seeing our families and friends, or football matches even. Many business leaders are calling for selective re-opening of sectors of the economy. Many believe that we have over-reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic, and I fear that their voices will become louder. I fear that our politicians will listen to those voices, and lose their resolve.

It is hard to trust politicians in this country. They have failed us so spectacularly over the last decade or so, that it is difficult to believe that they have our best interests in mind. Already the Murdoch press is railing at the shut-down, and the spectre of government debt is looming. Business leaders are warning of financial Armageddon, the IPA is warning that we have lost our basic freedoms, and the forces of the right are gathering steam.

I want the Government to stay the course, because this virus is so effective, and so infectious, and we are so close to victory. The Swedish example is proof that social distancing is the best way to defeat the virus, and that allowing life to go on as if nothing is happening is totally disastrous. Not to mention cavalier, in treating the lives of ANY citizens as expendable.

Scott Morrison has been something of a revelation lately. But there are elements within his own party, and within the loud right, who would undo the good work done so far. We need to continue our locked down lives, at least until we have evidence that we have neutralised the virus. Black humour in times of crisis is fine, but the U.S. is losing 3000 lives a day; on Sweden’s worst day they lost 170 out of a small population. These are not just numbers, but real people, lost forever to their families, and their communities.

This is too serious to leave to the cynics and the profit takers. The fear of a second wave is no laughing matter, as Singapore can attest; and we have barely felt the first wave. I believe in our own scientists, and our medical people, and I am prepared to back our current strategy. Our lives depend on it.

UPDATED April 22, 2020

Nearly 1800 people have now died in Sweden, making it the 14th worst affected country globally.

The death rate is 156.45 per million compared to 62.84 in Denmark, 28.41 in Norway and 17.69 in Finland, all of which have much more severe lockdowns. Its death toll is roughly three times the combined total of its Scandinavian neighbours. Australia’s death rate remains at about 3.

We have to stay the course!

3 thoughts on “Sweden chose ‘herd immunity’ – Australia didn’t”

  1. Thanks Mark. I can’t help detecting a whiff of racism in the Swedish response. It seems to be the default position with most countries; this coronavirus is foreign in origin, so if we can keep it out we will all be well. Even when person-to-person infection was established in China, there was no acceptance that the same would happen elsewhere. Once the virus took hold, many countries fell back to preventing people from China entering the country. But in most cases it was already too late for that action to be effective. I think Sweden will turn out to be a case history model of what not to do in a pandemic, at least in the early stages.

    When it comes to the Australian government and its response, why would you trust them at their word? After arson and bushfires, climate change denialism, robodebt and sportsrorts? See, we’re inventing our own buzzwords for Australian political scandals now. And they don’t even have to end in ‘gate’ any more!

    If Scott Morrison has ‘been a revelation’, it’s not apparent to me. He was forced into line by the Premiers of NSW and Victoria, after he said he would be going to the footy that weekend in March. Andrews and Berejiklian are the ones who have shown their strength. Morrison has not led – it has taken a long time, but the smirk has finally been wiped from his face. So about the only positive thing we can say about Morrison is that it seems he has finally realised how serious this is. It’s all well and good for the IPA and fellow travellers to scream ‘open the country!’ but they won’t be the ones leading the charge – they will be sitting back counting the dollars as they start to roll in again.


    1. It is just that, no matter the reason, he did manage to keep his sneering attitude in check, so credit where it’s due, but he will inevitably revert to his old belief system. He may fall in love with being liked. Who knows? We’re all going to be more energised politically, in the future, as we have begun to see how vulnerable the right is. Note we haven’t heard a squeak from Craig Kelly. Anyway, I ramble on!


  2. I agree re. Morrison, but he is walking the walk at the moment. Of course, leopards and old dogs don’t really change, but he has marched into Keynes territory, and therein lies his danger. We can only watch, and wait.


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