Updated: Jun 24
Throughout 2020 the media predicted a catastrophe for Sweden. They implied that the country's refusal to lockdown would leave it a floating morgue by the end of the year. One of the most liberal and progressive countries in Europe was smeared as callous and irresponsible for an approach that put citizen's rights first. Almost every day, Sweden was 'lockdown shamed' by journalists. This persistent shaming of Sweden fascinated me. So much so that I determined I must find out for myself what was actually going on.
In August of the same year, soon after the UK's lockdown ended, I landed in Stockholm. It was eye-opening to find Swedes living a carefree and normal life, the 'old normal' that is. After being under so many restrictions in the UK for 4 months, experiencing freedom as it used to be was like visiting an old friend.
A few days in and it soon became apparent how certain theories touted by the media to explain Sweden's low death rate were plainly false. The media had a balancing act to perform, on one hand Sweden would suffer for its foolhardy approach, on the other they had to explain why deaths remained persistently low. In fact, well below the projections.
Assertions were circulated that Sweden had avoided excessive fatalities because our Nordic cousins were more responsible than the rest of us. It was claimed they practised effective social distancing and voluntarily wore masks, their homes were cleaner, even they were cleaner. These myths were also repeated by a leading pro-lockdown scientist (more about him later). However, I can tell you from my direct experience, none of this was true. Nobody wore masks, I mean virtually zero, except for one or two tourists. Restaurants and bars were full with no distinction between groups, tables were jammed together and everyone hugged and socialised with no obvious regard for the pandemic. I boarded packed ferries, with no social distancing, either when seated, boarding or disembarking. Shops never closed and even changing rooms were open. Nope, everything was - as far as I could see - business as usual. The only significant exceptions were large events and upper secondary schools, which had remained closed since the start of the pandemic.
When not discrediting Sweden's mitigation strategy, these myths were used as a fallback to explain the 'embarrassing' lack of a huge pandemic-level body count. Even Prof. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London utilised them to counter why his computer model got it so wrong over Sweden. Ferguson, a long time WHO collaborator, advised governments around the world to lockdown based on projections from this same model. As cases peaked in April 2020, Ferguson's model predicted 96,000 deaths for Sweden in the absence of a full and immediate lockdown. The figure wasn't even a worst-case scenario but a "conservative" estimate. Once it became clear how erroneous this prediction was, Ferguson accused Uppsala University, who derived the figure from a copy of his model, of incorrect use. This they denied. Later in the year Ferguson recanted and admitted Uppsala had used it correctly. So the model itself was simply wrong, exaggerating deaths by almost ten-fold.
Prof. Ferguson took to back-peddling on Sweden's rejection of lockdowns as well, stating that they had achieved the same effect by closing secondary schools, events and using "effective social distancing". He said: “it’s not a full lockdown [but] they have got quite a long way to the same effect". This statement contradicts the advice outputted from his model. Neither is it the first time his virus modelling has been blamed for gross exaggerations. During the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 he predicted that up to 150,000 people would die. There were fewer than 200 deaths. But his fear-mongering predictions didn't end there:
In 2002, Ferguson predicted that up to 50,000 people would likely die from exposure to BSE (mad cow disease) in beef. In the U.K., there were only 177 deaths from BSE.
In 2005, Ferguson predicted that up to 150 million people could be killed from bird flu. Only 282 people died worldwide from the disease between 2003 and 2009.
In 2009, a government estimate, based on Ferguson’s advice, said a “reasonable worst-case scenario” was that the swine flu would lead to 65,000 British deaths. In the end, swine flu killed 457 people in the U.K.
Indeed, Ferguson's fellow modellers call him “The Master of Disaster.” - After all, that is what he does best, predictions of doom.
“I’m normally reluctant to say this about a scientist," Jay Schnitzer, a vascular biology expert and former scientific director of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in San Diego said. "But he dances on the edge of being a publicity-seeking charlatan.”
As previously mentioned, Ferguson was wrong about Sweden adopting 'effective' social distancing and if it was enough to close just a few venues then why are governments still locking down entire societies?
Many critics now say that Ferguson's model should never have been used.
Despite these proven failures, Ferguson is continually relied upon by the WHO and other agencies to mobilise governments using the same dodgy data.
What actually happened
So, at the close of 2020, what was the result of Sweden's 'reckless' no-lockdown strategy?
Covid deaths totaled 9,771. The total all-cause death toll for the year was 97,941. This was just 5000 more deaths than 2018. Compared to the decade, Sweden's death rate was equal to 2012. The most common cause of death in 2020 was cardiovascular disease, claiming 28,000 lives.
Even the viral trajectory was the same. Lockdown or not, Covid tracked a similar seasonal pattern throughout Europe, irrespective of each country's mitigation strategy. The question is, did lockdowns make any difference whatsoever? In reality, there was no magic formula to Sweden's success. If Sweden could achieve these results with no lockdown then everyone else locked down in vain.
Sweden chose to keep its schools open with zero deaths and barely a hospitalisation among its 1.8 million schoolchildren. Another myth busted was the risk children posed in transmitting Covid to the elderly. They found this was not a significant threat. Carers in residential care homes were the primary spreaders. Introducing the virus into a setting that yielded the majority of deaths.
But what about Sweden's neighbours, didn't they fair better?
Taken at face value Sweden's lockdown neighbours suffered lower Covid death tolls, but there are problems with these comparisons.
While this may appear to be a good advert for lockdowns many European countries that did lockdown, faired far worse than Sweden. This was also true in the US, where states that locked down saw higher Covid mortality than those that didn't. Much of Asia echoed these outcomes. When evaluated in this broader context, there is no consistent evidence to support the case for lockdowns.
With regards to mortality; as flu seasons wax and wane across the world, every country is affected inequitably. Although not fully understood It was never considered unusual if one country or region suffered more than another, so why would we expect Covid to be any different? There may be many reasons but this is nothing new, it's normal.
Sweden also reported Covid related deaths in care homes but not all of its neighbours were so transparent. A report here states that in Norway there was "no national overview of the number of tests and COVID-19 deaths in LTC (Long-term Care) facilities". Given that 70% of Sweden's Covid deaths occurred in these facilities it's easy to see how discrepancies in death tolls can manifest between countries due to inconsistencies in reporting methods.
In another example of lockdown inconsistency, Canada suffered a greater percentage of care home Covid fatalities than Sweden at 80%, despite locking down and having stricter measures to protect residents.
As over 20% of Sweden's population is over 65, it's perhaps unsurprising that it was hit harder than it's neighbours but the majority of deaths were in a much older and frailer demographic, many had a median life-expectancy of 5-9 months.
Perhaps one fact to note is that the average age of death with Covid in Europe is almost equivalent to the average age of death without Covid. Europa reported a 0.1 to 1.5 (yrs) decrease in life expectancy across the region in 2020 - an average of 7 months.
Sweden's measured, sustainable strategy left citizens rights intact. Within the context of the previous decade, the pandemic yielded nothing extraordinary
A word that Anders Tegnell, Sweden's Chief Medical Officer, frequently used throughout 2020 was "sustainable". Compared to the rest of Europe, Sweden decided to not throw it's people's rights, welfare and economy out with the 'bathwater' but instead focused on proportion and sustainability. This holistic approach defied the hysterical and disastrous effects seen in countries that locked down, wherein the majority of deaths were, and continue to be, exceedingly higher than Sweden.
This should be case closed on lockdowns and the usefulness of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in fighting the pandemic, but it won't be. The lockdowns and state of emergency will continue because they clearly serve another purpose.
Governments have failed in their duty of care to citizens by not weighing the effects of 'long lockdown' against these measures. A legacy that will blight society well into the future. What is emerging is a monolithic, restrictive and authoritarian society; there's nothing 'normal' about that.
By Stephen Clarke - CAL Founder