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Was the avoidance of a lockdown in Sweden the right move?

People gather for a drink at an outdoor bar in Stockholm, Sweden. (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP)

Sweden treated the coronavirus pandemic different from almost every other country in that they did not have a nationwide lockdown. They advised social distancing, advised people to wear masks, but they attempted to keep their businesses open. Was Sweden’s COVID experiment successful or not?

What about this idea that you could create herd immunity even without a vaccine by essentially letting the virus run its course? Mercer Island MD Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss.

“The world stood by and watched as Sweden decided to do this, and they really took a very unorthodox approach and created what amounted to an open air experiment. They just took the approach that in a pandemic, if you just allow life to carry on, as you normally would with no shutdowns, would you develop herd immunity?”

“And it sort of failed because they’ve had thousands more people die than in their neighboring countries that impose lockdowns,” Cohen said. “And the big thing was, they said that their economy would do better as a result. In fact, their economy is actually doing worse, so they didn’t have the economic benefits and … they had a lot more deaths.”

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While measuring deaths in the context of coronavirus is a bit difficult, the death toll in Sweden per capita has been relatively big considering their population size.

“If you go and look at the John Hopkins website tracking all the deaths in each country, it’s sort of hard to put it in context, so maybe we can do this: Three months after having taken this approach, they’ve had 5,420 deaths in Sweden. It doesn’t sound like necessarily a big number, but Sweden is only a country of 10 million people,” Cohen said.

“We’ve had a 130,000 or so deaths in the United States,” Cohen said. “But compared per capita, Sweden suffered 40% more deaths than the United States. They’ve suffered 12 times more deaths in neighboring Norway, seven times more in neighboring Finland, and six times more than Denmark. So the elevated death toll that they’ve had based on this approach has really been recognized for a period of time. But what they hoped to have benefit was that their economy would continue to do well or flourish, and that hasn’t happened.”

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The pandemic has not yet taken its course. So is it possible that they had all their deaths up front, and now they’re down to very few deaths per day, whereas the rest of the world is still having a significant number of daily deaths?

“I don’t think the answer to that can be known because, first of all, you have to be widespread testing to see what percent of the population has developed antibodies,” Cohen said. “As we’re learning, we don’t even know that the antibodies are persistent. So what does it even mean? It could be that it’s a terrible approach and that they’re not developing herd immunity and nobody is going to develop herd immunity.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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