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The Pandemic’s Scandinavian Story: Who’s Right?

May 21, 2020 Visit Europe No Comments Email Email

A worldwide debate rages:  Should we open up our country’s economy?  Or do the lives saved justify the economic damage done by measures to keep the pandemic under control?  Like it or not, it ultimately comes down to the numbers.  How many lives?  How many dollars?  A look at the experiences of other countries can help us make that decision.  Scandinavia is a good place to start.

The four Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland (though not everyone agrees the Finns are Scandinavian) – are geographically close to each other and have cultural and social characteristics in common, but are following very different policies toward the pandemic.  Sweden has taken a relatively laissez-faire approach, including keeping schools open as well as most businesses.  The other three countries have taken the much stricter approach common to most western countries.

The graph below shows the progression of COVID-19 in each of these four countries through May 17.  Cases are shown along the horizontal axis, and deaths along the vertical axis, with all results shown on a per 1MM population basis to adjust for population differences.  Each marker on a country’s curve measures an additional seven days, so the distance between markers shows the impact of the pandemic during that week – vertically for deaths and horizontally for cases.  If the markers are getting closer together, the pace of the pandemic is slowing.  We’ve also added a red dot on the graph, showing where Norway, Denmark, and Finland would be as of May 17 if the three were added together and treated as a single entity.


The differences are striking.  Sweden has reported roughly double the number of COVID-19 cases per capita versus the other three countries, and nearly six times the number of deaths.  Moreover, it’s visually clear that the gaps between the markers in Sweden’s curve have stayed relatively constant for the last five weeks, while the gaps are shrinking for the other three countries.  That suggests that the difference in both cases and deaths between Sweden and the other three countries will continue to widen for at least a few more weeks.

Comparing Sweden’s experience to Norway, Denmark, and Finland gives us a clear example that restrictive policies save lives.  It also confirms that those policies mean fewer sick people.  Testing identifies case, and since Sweden’s rate of testing is one of the lowest in western Europe – and about 60% lower than the testing rate in the other three Scandinavian countries – the two-to-one difference in reported COVID-19 cases almost certainly understates the true difference.

The debate rages, even in Sweden.  Some point to the higher death rates with alarm, while others argue that we’re simply slowing the rate of a pandemic that will ultimately affect everyone, and that’s not worth the economic damage.  But at least we’re starting to get information that can help us make the tradeoff.  What’s your opinion?  Where do we draw the line(s)?

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