What If Sweden Had Imposed a COVID-19 Lockdown?

What If Sweden Had Imposed a COVID-19 Lockdown?
(Janerik Henriksson/TT News Agency via AP)
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It's been a little over a year since the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus began tearing across Europe, prompting almost all of the countries there to enter strict lockdowns with the hope of saving lives.

Except for Sweden, of course...

Rather than shutter businesses and issue stay-at-home orders, Swedish authorities instead advised citizens to adjust their behavior to slow the spread, aiming to reach herd immunity through gradual infection. As researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany recounted, "people were told “to avoid unnecessary traveling and social events, to keep distance to others, and to stay at home” if they had any symptoms. In addition, those above age 70 were “advised to avoid social contact” and “visits to retirement homes” were banned."

In an analysis recently published to the journal PLoS ONE, those researchers sought to find out if Sweden's unique approach actually paid off. Did foregoing a lockdown prevent economic damage while still keeping Swedes relatively safe?

They described their methods:

In order to quantify the lockdown effect, we benchmark actual developments in Sweden against a counterfactual lockdown scenario approximated through the outcomes in a synthetic control unit. We construct it on the basis of a donor pool of European countries that actually imposed a lockdown and by making sure that it resembles Sweden in the way the pandemic unfolded before the lockdown. In the counterfactual scenario, Sweden would have imposed a first lockdown, just like in the control unit, running for 9 weeks from March 15 to May 17, 2020.

The control unit was built to mirror Sweden for population size, the share of the population older than 65 years, and the share of the urban population. It ended up being composed of varying proportions of data from Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal.

Confused? Essentially, the scientists created a 'Lockdown Sweden' by combining infection rate and death rate data of these other countries (which all imposed lockdowns). They then compared the outcomes of this 'Lockdown Sweden' to what Sweden actually experienced.

The researchers' analysis was completed late last Fall, so the study period ran from March 2020 through Sept. 1, 2020. They found that if Sweden had imposed a lockdown in Spring 2020, similar to other European countries, infections would have been cut by 75% and deaths would have been reduced by 38%. At the same time, GDP growth would have fallen by an extra 1.64% and 0.71% in the first and second quarters of 2020.

"Our analysis suggests that the economic costs of a lockdown in Sweden would have been moderate, consistent with the finding that the Swedish labor market performed only slightly better than that of its neighbors," they wrote, noting that voluntary distancing in the country and economic lockdowns in surrounding countries severely hampered the Swedish economy in reality, despite not having a lockdown.

The authors' study suggests that Sweden's laissez-faire approach to the pandemic resulted in additional infection and death with little economic benefit. Although they noted that there were numerous other factors they did not consider.

"Our analysis is altogether silent on the social, political, and psychological costs of a lockdown. Hence, the final verdict on lockdowns as a policy tool is still out."

Sweden's strategy is still a matter of intense debate. The country's neighbor, Norway, has roughly half the population but more than eight times fewer infections and twenty times fewer deaths.

Source: Born B, Dietrich AM, Müller GJ (2021) The lockdown effect: A counterfactual for Sweden. PLoS ONE 16(4): e0249732. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249732

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