The Facts on Sweden Amid Active Disinformation

I am noticing an increase in Sweden-bashing in the media and the increase of false information being broadcast from outlets like WaPo and MSNBC.

Reports like this and this are false and irresponsible. Instead, let’s look to the official Public Health Agency of Sweden as a source. This page shows a Q&A style guide for you to understand the actual current “unprecedented” restrictions in Sweden. The page was last updated on November 6th, more than two weeks ago. The media reports that I linked above are from 3 to 4 days ago. It is true that the Swedish PM gave a speech recently urging folks to limit their personal gatherings to 8 people. This is not a mandate however; the only mandate existing in Sweden, and that has existed all along, is covered by the Public Order Act, prohibiting gatherings of over 50 people. This increases up to 300 people however if social distancing can be maintained and the audience is seated. This has not changed no matter how many alarmist articles get published by the media. (Edit, this has been found to be untrue, see the bottom of the post.)

Another item worth noting in the Q&A is the official public health guidance regarding face masks: “We do not currently recommend face masks in public settings since the scientific evidence around the effectiveness of face masks in combatting the spread of infection is unclear.” To the question regarding why other country’s guidance is different from Sweden’s, the response is “The scientific evidence around the effectiveness of face masks in combatting the spread of infection is weak, which is why different countries have arrived at different recommendations. Some countries have chosen to view face masks as a form of security and hope that universal use of face masks will reduce the risk of infection spreading from people who are in the incubation period, before the symptoms are apparent, or who have such mild or unspecific symptoms that they do not consider themselves ill. The Public Health Agency of Sweden does not recommend the general use of face masks, as a face mask that itches or slips down below the nose may mean a person is regularly touching their mouth, eyes or nose with their hands, which can increase the risk of the infection spreading. Use of a face mask may also encourage people with mild symptoms to go out into the community, which might increase the spread of infection. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is constantly assessing the state of knowledge in this area and reviews new information from various sources.” Now, it doesn’t matter if you agree with this or not. What matters is that the Public Health Agency, full of experts and scientists, of an entire country has examined countless studies and issues this recommendations to its citizens. It is imperative that we understand why they did so, and it’s not because they’re all idiots and you’re right.

Headlines like these are amusing to me. It’s like the author is surprised that Sweden is seeing a rise in cases for not having a lockdown. What exactly did they expect to happen? The argument isn’t about whether or not COVID spreads between people, we all know this. It is about whether it is worth locking down over a virus like COVID. And it looks like Sweden made the correct decision in not locking down. Let me explain. While it is true that Sweden is seeing a larger spike in cases than their initial spike in March/April (see here for the graphs), the opposite is true for deaths. Yes, you read that right. Sweden is seeing fewer deaths despite seeing more cases when comparing with the data from earlier this year. Earlier this year, Sweden saw less cases than now, but more deaths. You can see this for yourself on that Worldometers graph link above. Here is an interesting report showing that Sweden is actually seeing a death rate deficit now, sort of in a way balancing out its initially higher deaths per million figure at the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, New Jersey and New York remain numbers 1 and 2 in the world for deaths per million, but I digress. The bottom line is that Sweden is paying a lesser price for staying open than pretty much every other country that locked down (these countries have higher death rates and a devastated economy to add).

I don’t know why Sweden is seeing a spike in cases now as opposed to a month or two ago. Nothing has really changed in terms of regulations easing or the like, they never really had much of any regulations to begin with. We are entering flu/cold season in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps this and the low specificity of some tests may have caused the spike in cases there. But since there is no spike in deaths, only spikes in cases, this in my view essentially eliminates most of any concerns to be had with what is going on in Sweden (and the rest of the world for that matter). We will have to see how this plays out in the coming weeks, but I am doubtful that they will see a bigger spike in deaths than they did in the spring, primarily because in the spring, deaths did not really lag behind case counts. At some points it was actually an inverse relationship (cases rose but deaths fell), but in the majority of instances, it was a parallel relationship (cases fell and deaths fell). Another reason that I can think of for why I am doubtful is that government advice for its citizens has remained essentially unchanged: case fatality rates are substantially higher for older folks and folks with pre-existing conditions, and as such, the Swedish government has advised those particular individuals to be cautious and distance themselves. In addition, the significant majority of new cases in Sweden right now are in the younger demographic, the same demographic that is at the least chance of dying from coronavirus. All of this information tells me that there is no reason for deaths to spike now as compared to a month or two ago, but at this point it’s mostly speculation and a little bit of bias. We’ll have to wait and see and I’ll gladly admit that I was wrong if that is the case.

In writing this, I mainly achieved my goal of blowing off some steam and attempt to set the record straight. It did devolve into a bit of a rant but I tried to keep it as informative as possible. If you have anything to add or correct, please feel free to let me know! Thanks for reading!

Update: Somebody provided links proving that Sweden has in fact passed a legal decree to limit gatherings to 8 people, overriding their 50 person limit, for a period of 4 weeks, with the absolutely insane penalty of 6 months in jail if caught organizing an event anyway. I was initially unable to find proof of these orders, so I apologize for misinforming. While, in my opinion, the order is unlikely to do anything and an unfortunate departure from their previous measures (or lack thereof) which worked just fine, it is a relatively hopeful sign that they have placed a 4 week period of validity onto it. One of my major issues with many US orders were the indefinite natures of them. It will be interesting to see if this order will change anything, and I have no doubt that the media will credit it with exactly that. The majority of my post is still worth reading, as that legal order was not the only issue that I covered.

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