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Murray Sherwin: Re-evaluating Sweden's Covid policy "experiment"

Covid outcomes were broadly similar to surrounding countries

In early 2020, as the world was becoming alarmed about the spread of Covid-19, the response in one country stood out as an internationally newsworthy departure from the norm. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s State Epidemiologist, was regularly in front of TV cameras, arguing that widespread mandated lockdowns were not likely to prove beneficial in the longer term and might, in fact, prove damaging in important respects. He advocated an approach relying more on individual responsibility and a clear focus on risk and effective risk mitigation in an environment in which Covid was expected to eventually become endemic.

The Swedish authorities were not completely “hands-off”. For a period, restaurants and bars were required to move to table service only, social gatherings of more than fifty people were banned, and high schools and universities were advised (but not ordered) to move to remote teaching where feasible. But primary schools remained open, businesses continued to function and the public were asked to act responsibly to limit spread, by staying home if symptomatic and generally taking care to avoid exposure. In short, it was a light-touch approach relying on people to take personal responsibility.

The early Swedish experience was unpromising

Covid swept through elder-care facilities with high fatality rates. Mr Tegnell and his light-touch strategy came under intense pressure from critics seeking a stronger response. As early as June 2020, the Swedish Government established a National Commission of Inquiry to review the country’s Covid response strategy. That “Corona Commission”, of 8 independent experts, reported in December 2020, again in September 2021, and finally in February 2022.

Fundamentally correct … with a more direct role for politicians

Responsibility for the pandemic response sat largely with the independent Swedish Public Health Agency and its epidemiologist Mr Tegnell. The inquiry faulted that model, making a number of points about inadequate pandemic preparedness, fragmented communication, and unclear lines of responsibility. It suggested a need for a more direct role for politicians, given the breadth and significance of the pandemic. However, in its final report, while retaining those points, the Commission endorsed the policy of avoiding widespread lockdowns as “fundamentally correct”.

Assessing the Swedish “experiment”

With the passage of nearly three years since Covid first emerged, how does the Swedish strategy look by comparison with those adopted elsewhere within western European and other developed countries?

In April 2022, What Sweden Got Right About COVID appeared in the Washington Monthly, presenting data on Sweden’s Covid experience in international comparison. The article argued that, after two years, there was not much to suggest that Sweden’s response strategy was less effective than others in terms of measures such as excess mortality and Covid-related deaths.¹ Sweden then sat pretty much in the middle of the pack of wealthy Scandinavian and Western European countries. (And indeed it still does. Here is an updated graph of excess mortality to the end of 2022, see below for Covid-related deaths.)

Avoiding lockdowns was less damaging to wider social wellbeing

The Washington Monthly article argued that by avoiding widespread and prolonged lockdowns, disruption to Swedish society, particularly in areas of primary school education and wider social wellbeing, appears to have been less damaging than elsewhere.

In part prompted by that article, the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank, held an online seminar in August 2022 in which expert reviewers offered views on the lessons available from the Swedish experience.

The key messages from the seminar were:

* After early bad experience with Covid, Swedish data on excess mortality and other measures of Covid impact look broadly comparable to those of its neighbours and the better performing Western European nations.

* Effective protection for the vulnerable and elderly is critical. Sweden was slow to achieve that.

* The experience for Swedish primary school students, both in terms of educational progress overall and, importantly, in terms of gaps in progress between socially advantaged and disadvantaged children, appears to be better than in other countries where schools were closed.

* Random factors can have a big influence on Covid infection rates across countries and regions – super-spreader events and “seed load” influences can drive very big differences in infection rates across regions. Sweden’s early bad experience may have been heavily influenced by the timing of a Stockholm school term break in late February 2020. Many families were holidaying at ski resorts in Northern Italy and Austria, where COVID was rife at the time. Neighbouring countries did not have school break at that time and were less directly exposed initially.

* Despite the early public controversy in Sweden about the light-touch policy response, current surveys in Sweden indicate that public confidence in health and public authorities remains high.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry into New Zealand’s Covid experience and lessons available to assist future pandemic planning is about to get underway.² It will do well to explore the rich pickings from the Swedish experience and the existing reports of the Swedish National Commission as it comes to its judgements about New Zealand's past and future pandemic response strategies.

1 Excess mortality and Covid-related deaths are different, but related, measures of the toll from Covid-19. Broadly speaking, excess mortality is an estimate of how many additional deaths occurred, relative to the number that might be expected without Covid. Covid-related deaths, on the other hand, is the official death count provided by a country’s responsible agency. Our World in Data provides further details, see Excess mortality during COVID-19: background and Deaths from COVID-19: background.

Murray Sherwin is a semi-retired economist - NZ Productivity Commission, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and RBNZ, amongst other gigs. This article was first published at Asymmetric Information, the Newsletter of the New Zealand Association of Economists (NZAE)

3,130 views44 comments


As I have family in Slovakia, here are some data. Population: NZ 4,899,304, SK 5,460,193. In the first months of pandemia both countries closed the borders and the numbers of infections and deaths were similar. It changed dramatically later in 2021, when we in NZ were somewhere in the bottom with our numbers, while SK numbers kept rising. Today as for the number of infection NZ is 46th with 2,199,579 cases, SK 49th with 1,862,112. The number of reported deaths is different. NZ 3,839, SK 20,995 with the peak in November 2021 and February 2022, when the number of death in a day reached over 2,ooo.

It would be interesting to see the results of investigation of responses in both…


Not sure if comparing excess deaths is useful. There is a lot of opinion and evidence that excess deaths are not from covid, but are from the vaccine. So seems irrelevant to the article therefore?


Mr Sherwin - Dita De Boni just posted an extraordinary report on the NBR regarding the ‘failures’ of Sweden. I am a little gobsmacked. Glad I let my NBR subscription lapse. I will stick with Basset, Brash&Hide!


New Zealand and most other countries had a very detailed pandemic response plan that probably cost the taxpaying workers more than they would like.

It is online and available for anyone to read but apparently no-one did.

The recommended response to a viral pandemic that everyone knew was inevitable was very much like what the Swedes did.

The draconian, excessive and undemocratic violations of our human rights that were imposed were not in the plan.

The plan was to try to protect the most vulnerable people, reduce the number of people that would be seriously I'll at the same time and allow natural immunity to occur as it inevitably would have to to end the pandemic.

The idea that the…

Trevor Hughes
Trevor Hughes
Jan 14, 2023
Replying to

This should be the starting point for the Royal Commission's investigations. Why was the existing Pandemic Plan not put into effect? But it will be ignored, you can be sure of that.


Jan 12, 2023

I read a lot of interesting comments here, But have any of the commentaters ever downloaded the first 250 pages of Phizers instructions regarding the Vax, as ordered released by the US Supreme court,

Wherein Phizer states if You have any specific health problem, such as the need for blood thinners, anaphylaxis, shingles, hiv, and quite a few more, DO NOT GET THE VAX.

towards the end of the release Phizer states they had two groups of rhesus monkeys for testing, the first ten were only given covid, all survived with strong immunity to further infection. the other ten were given the vax, all died or had to be euthanized,.

Say no more from that point on it all became…

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