The numbers are in, and we can say it with certainty:
It was all for nothing. Really, for nothing. The miseries we inflicted on ourselves after March 2020 — the school closures, the ruined businesses, the debts, the authoritarianism — were caused by a moment of lightheaded panic.
How can I be so sure? Because, three-and-a-half years on, the results are in. And, let me warn you, they make dismal reading for anyone who went along with the lockdowns. You see, there was a counterfactual all along. Sweden did not impose mask mandates or stay-at-home orders. It did not close its borders or its businesses. Other than banning large meetings, it carried on as normal and told people to use their common sense.
Internationally, Swedes were portrayed as gamblers defying the scientific consensus. But it was they who were following the epidemic protocols drawn up by the WHO in cooler-headed times — protocols that never contemplated the mass immobilization of the population.
The rest of the world embarked on an experiment; Sweden was the control. And the leaders of other countries knew it at the time. Hence their resentment of that stolid, sensible social democracy.
In a series of leaked WhatsApp messages, the British health minister, Matt Hancock, raged at what he called the “f*****g Sweden argument.” In one of his texts, he instructed an adviser to “supply three or four bullet [points] of why Sweden is wrong.”
Note the phrasing: “why” not “if.” Britain, like most of the world, had by then committed itself to the most illiberal and expensive policy in the modern age. The idea that it had overreacted was too awful to contemplate.
For a while, Sweden did seem to be faring worse than comparable countries. It was never the outlier that it needed to have been to vindicate the lockdowns. Its reported death toll by the end of June 2020 — 517 deaths per million people — was higher than in the rest of Scandinavia but lower than in Spain and Italy.
Still, that early bump allowed critics to pronounce that the policy of openness had failed. The New York Times dismissed Sweden as a “pariah state.” Former President Donald Trump declared, “Sweden is suffering very greatly. You know that, right? Sweden is suffering very, very badly.”
But the declared purpose of slowing transmission had been to flatten the curve so that hospitals would not be flooded at any given moment. Unsurprisingly, then, Sweden’s infections were front-loaded. But they never came close to overwhelming the healthcare system.
In any case, even within Scandinavia, different countries had different rules for recording Covid deaths. In Norway, Covid had to be declared a cause of death by the attendant physician. In Sweden, if you choked on a meatball while carrying the virus, you counted as a Covid death.
That is why statisticians said at the time that we needed to wait until the figures were in to make like-with-like comparisons. The most basic measure is overall excess deaths — that is, how many people died during the three years of the pandemic versus the previous three years.
On that measure, Sweden did not just avoid a high death rate. According to Eurostat, the official EU statistical agency, it had the lowest death rate in Europe, below even Denmark, Norway, and Finland — 4.4% higher than in the previous period, compared to 11.1% for Europe as a whole.
We can fine-tune that calculation by factoring in age, obesity levels, and so on and asking how many people we would normally expect to die. If we do that, Sweden actually lengthens its lead over the rest of Europe.
Other rankings use different methodologies, and Sweden is not always the single best performer. But it is always at or near the top of the table, far above countries that chose to incarcerate their peoples.
Our World in Data, for example, puts Sweden’s excess death rate at 5.6 per cent compared to 10 per cent in Britain and 14% in the United States. The Economist puts it at 180 per 100,000 people, compared to 345 in Britain and 400 in the United States.
The gap is growing as the long-term consequences of lockdown, from mental health problems to missed cancer screenings, kick in. And poverty tends to correlate with lower life expectancy. According to the OECD, the world economy at the end of 2021 was 2.9% smaller than it would have been with no pandemic, but Sweden’s was 0.4% larger.
No, there is no way to sugarcoat this. The people who ordered the lockdowns caused needless poverty, illness and death. They did not mean to, but they did.
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