During the pandemic, the world watched as Sweden carried out a unique approach to combat the COVID-19 virus, relying on social distancing instead of lockdowns. Although labeled a “disaster” at the time, the strategy worked well for all — except one key group.
As much of the world shut down early in the COVID pandemic, Sweden remained open. The country’s approach was controversial, with some calling it “the Swedish experiment”.
But almost two-and-a-half years after the pandemic began, what can we say today about the outcomes of this “experiment”?
Sweden’s unique approach to COVID
First, let’s recap what Sweden’s strategy looked like. The country largely stuck to its pandemic plan, originally developed to be used in the event of an influenza pandemic. Instead of lockdowns, the goal was to achieve social distancing through public health recommendations.
Swedes were encouraged to work from home if possible and limit travel within the country. In addition, people aged 70 or older were asked to limit social contact, and people with COVID symptoms were asked to self-isolate. The goal was to protect the elderly and other high-risk groups while slowing down the spread of the virus so the healthcare system wouldn’t become overwhelmed.
As the number of cases surged, some restrictions were imposed. Public events were limited to a maximum of 50 people in March 2020, and eight people in November 2020. Visits to nursing homes were banned and upper secondary schools closed. Primary schools did, however, remain open throughout the pandemic.
Face masks were not recommended for the general public during the first wave, and only in certain situations later in the pandemic.
During spring 2020, the reported COVID death rate in Sweden was among the highest in the world. Neighboring countries that implemented rapid lockdown measures, such as Norway and Denmark, were faring much better, and Sweden received harsh criticism for its lax approach.
But defenders of the Swedish strategy claimed it would pay off in the long run, arguing that draconian measures were not sustainable and that the pandemic was a marathon, not a sprint.