By David Leonhardt
The White House event to celebrate Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination — a gathering that appears to have spread the coronavirus — would have violated the law in Sweden.
It was too large. More than 200 people attended the Barrett celebration. In Sweden, public events cannot include more than 50 people. Anyone who organizes a larger gathering is subject to a fine or up to six months in prison.
If you’ve been following the virus news out of Sweden, this fact may surprise you. Sweden has become notorious for its laissez-faire response. Its leaders refused to impose a lockdown in the spring, insisting that doing so was akin to “using a hammer to kill a fly.” They also actively discouraged mask wearing.
Ever since, people in other countries who favor a more lax approach have held up Sweden as a model. Recently, as new cases have surged in other European countries, some of Sweden’s defenders have claimed vindication.
How are you supposed to make sense of all this? Several readers have asked me that question, and the answers point to some lessons for fighting the virus. I think there are three key ones from Sweden:
1. It is not a success story. Over all, Sweden’s decision to let many activities continue unabated and its hope that growing immunity to the virus would protect people does not look good. The country has suffered more than five times as many deaths per capita as neighboring Denmark and about 10 times as many as Finland or Norway.
“It was a terrible idea to do what they did,” Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told me.
2. But Sweden did more than some people realize. It closed schools for students ages 16 and older. It encouraged residents to keep their distance from one another. And it imposed the ban on big gatherings, which looks especially smart now.
Compared with other viruses, this one seems especially likely to spread in clusters. Many infected people don’t infect a single other person, while “as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission,” The Atlantic’s Zeynep Tufekci has explained.
Given this, it’s less surprising that Sweden’s recent virus performance looks mediocre rather than horrible.
3. Swedish officials have been right to worry about “sustainability.” Strict lockdowns bring their own steep costs for society. With a vaccine at least months away, societies probably need to grapple with how to restart activities while minimizing risk.
Sweden’s leaders do not seem to have found the ideal strategy, but they are asking a reasonable question. “We see a disease that we’re going to have to handle for a long time,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s top epidemiologist, told The Financial Times, “and we need to build up systems for doing that.”
The fact that Sweden is no longer an extreme outlier in new virus cases — even as life there looks more normal than in most places — offers a new opportunity to assess risk.
Credit: The New York Times