Media Coverage of Sweden’s COVID Response Continues To Frustrate.

The country of Sweden continues to be one of the most hot button topics of discussion as the year 2020 continues. It gained itself a new level of distinction earlier this year, as it became one of the only countries in the Western world to not institute a full-bore lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In previous writing about the Swedish anti-lockdown approach, I judged it to have been, although not without flaws, a policy instituted by well-informed, qualified scientists (including but not limited to chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell) based on reasonable scientific information. Its detractors do bring up some valid points, but I have yet to find any compelling evidence that the Swedish approach decreased the safety of the general population (with more vulnerable groups such as the elderly in a different category), while perhaps (although the extent to which this was the case has yet to be calculated) avoiding some of the real social and human, to say nothing of economic, costs that came along with imposing strict lockdowns.

However, much media coverage in the United States of Sweden this year has been characterized by a frustrating lack of nuance, overlooking key facts and emphasizing certain things outside of their proper context, in order to attempt to portray their policy as an absolute failure that cost more lives than necessary and endangered many more. A key example of this would be the CNN piece entitled “ Sweden records highest death toll in 150 years in first half of 2020.”

Given that (as the authors and editors of this piece likely know very well) fifty-nine percent of online article readers share articles after having only read the headline, the design of the headline becomes clear- to conjure up images of piles of bodies in the streets, unprecedented mortality, and overall disaster. Few of the piece’s readers will think to look more deeply at the facts in order to glean the key context that the piece (in particular the headline) is omitting. The country’s fatality rate has increased in 2020 from 2019 by 15% according to the article, which cites the Swedish national statistics office.

However, this is not the highest mortality rate increase in Europe, either in general or age-adjusted. According to comparative data released by the UK government’s Office of National Statistics (the linked website allows for comparison of countries), Sweden’s mortality rate increase in 2020 vs. the preceding five years compared favorably to that of the United Kingdom, Spain, and several other European countries.

For even further context, one might note that the Swedish increase in fatalities was vastly under the predicted numbers from some of Europe’s most respectable institutions. One of the most well-known and now infamous COVID 19 prediction models has been that released by Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson. Ferguson’s model predicted 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United Kingdom by October 2020. As of late August, the current number sits at just over 41,000, and with the death rate declining, the odds of the 500,000 total being reached are slim, to say the least.

Attempting to model the number of deaths for Sweden in April 2020, researchers at the University of Uppsala attempted to adapt Ferguson’s Imperial College model to make their own predictions. They projected a death toll of 96,000 by the end of June if a non lockdown approach was followed, estimating that a lockdown would reduce that death toll threefold, to 30,000. As of this writing- with no Swedish lockdown- the country’s overall death toll at the end of August sits at 5,821.

Every death is of course tragic, and Anders Tegnell himself has admitted that aspects of the policy geared towards protecting elder care homes could have been improved. But, if the decline in Swedish deaths (again far, far lower than estimated in the first place) is any indication, this improvements have been made. Furthermore, Sweden’s neighbors in Norway and Finland, whose initial approaches are often cited as superior, now have fewer restrictions in place than even Sweden does.

Adding in all of these facts for context, the idea of the highest fatality rate in 150 years seems much less dire- but that context is absent in the CNN article. Furthermore, the article paints a bleak picture of how the Swedish economy has fared this year in the abscence of a lockdown. The raw numbers the article cites are correct, but again lacking context. It says that “Sweden’s economy is predicted to contract by more than 5% with hundreds of thousands losing jobs.”

However, this neglects the fact that the 5% number is less than the projected economic contraction for the European Union as a whole, according to figures released by the European Commission. It is less than half of the projected 11% economic contraction in France, which did impose a strict lockdown policy, and almost a third less than the 13.7 % contraction projected for Italy, which imposed the strictest lockdown in Europe.

The article correctly notes that Sweden’s tourism and hospitality industries were among the hardest hit, although how one supposes a lockdown could have averted this situation, especially with travel to Sweden discouraged or banned, is hard to ascertain, to say the least.

With Sweden’s economy so thoroughly integrated into the broader European and world economy, a downturn was inevitable, but with the full range of information available (though not in the CNN piece), one comes to the conclusion that Sweden allowing many of its businesses and much of its society to continue to operate was the best of a series of bad options.

While not fully averting economic pain for the country, was better on that score at least than the alternative, while not contributing to the death rate (which was, again, overwhelmingly concentrated in elder care facilities, not the working-age population). In a time like this, it is more important than ever to keep the public informed through nuanced analysis and thorough reporting, but unfortunately that has been lacking in the article examined here, and sadly it seems to be typical of much of the media conversation around Sweden’s COVID policy.

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Peter Cioth

Peter Cioth

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