How would the COVID-19 experience have turned out had there been no government-imposed states of emergency, no mask mandates, no orders to shelter in place, and no shutdowns of schools, restaurants, offices, and gyms?
The query isn’t hypothetical. While the United States and virtually every advanced nation did turn to lockdowns and compulsory social distancing, Sweden charted a very different course. There, life continued more or less normally. Only public gatherings of more than 50 people were banned. Elementary schools, day-care facilities, shops, and parks stayed open. Health officials emphasized the importance of hand-washing and advised residents older than 70 to stay home. But masking was not mandatory; there were relatively few restrictions on personal mobility; and unlike elsewhere, public messaging by government leaders did not reflect frantic desperation.
We now know the result of Sweden’s wager: By every important measure, Scandinavia’s most populous country weathered the pandemic with better consequences than other nations. Its economy didn’t collapse, its children suffered no learning loss, and it registered no increase in suicides. Most important, Sweden’s excess death rate during the three pandemic years — the increase in mortality from 2020 through 2022 compared with the loss of life during the previous three years — was lower than in any other European nation.
The data are summarized in a new study for the Cato Institute by the historian and social researcher Johan Norberg. The policy paper provides convincing evidence that the approach adopted by the United States and other advanced nations — an approach that relied on top-down coercion and sharply curtailed personal freedom — was a mistake.
For a while, the prevailing view was that the mistake was Sweden’s. The disease spread quickly through the Swedish population in the early months and by July 2020 Stockholm was reporting COVID-19 deaths at a level of 517 per million — several times the rate in nearby Norway, Denmark, and Finland. “Sweden Has Become the World’s Cautionary Tale,” reported The New York Times, which blamed the country’s “grim result” on its “failure to impose social distancing.” Former president Donald Trump agreed, declaring that “Sweden is paying heavily for its decision not to lockdown.”
But Swedish voters backed their government and gave its noncoercive policy time to work. The upshot, writes Norberg, is that “based on what we now know, [Sweden’s] laissez-faire approach seems to have paid off.”
It wasn’t entirely laissez-faire. In addition to banning gatherings of more than 50 people, Sweden stopped visits to nursing homes, imposed earlier closing hours on bars and restaurants, and — as required by European Union rules — closed its borders to non-Europeans. But on the whole, Swedes were trusted by their political leaders to use their own judgment.
Measured against the yardstick of reported COVID-19 deaths, Sweden by 2023 was squarely in the middle of the pack: Its death rate was about 40 percent higher than that of the rest of Scandinavia but much lower than that in Southern Europe, Britain, and the United States. Then again, Sweden counted everyone who died and had tested positive for the virus as a COVID death, whereas in other countries, such as Norway, only when an attending physician listed COVID as the cause of a patient’s death was it included in the statistics.
For that reason, Norberg spotlights “excess deaths,” a category that includes all the additional lives lost to the pandemic, including those not necessarily encompassed by a given country’s official COVID data. By that metric, Sweden appears to have outperformed every country in Europe. Its excess-death rate during the pandemic was just 4.4 percent higher than the previous norm. That’s less than half of the European average of 11.1 percent and lower even than the 6.77 percent average of its Nordic neighbors.
Sweden’s strategy paid off in other ways, too. While Europe’s overall economy shrank by 2.1 percent during the pandemic lockdowns, the Swedish economy expanded slightly. Students in many nations fell behind by as much as a year in one or more subjects, but Swedish children suffered no learning loss. Lockdowns forced tens of millions of kids worldwide to miss out on childhood vaccinations; in Sweden, the juvenile vaccination rate went up. And though a dreadful spike in domestic abuse and suicides was reported in many countries, no such phenomenon was observed in Sweden.
“It was not Sweden that engaged in a reckless, unprecedented pandemic experiment, but the rest of the world,” Norberg concludes. It was a serious mistake to drastically limit citizens’ liberty and shut down so much of society. The world’s elites sneered at Sweden, but Sweden was right.