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December 21, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

An uptick in deaths from or with COVID-19 in the Scandinavian nation late last month, in common with the rest of Europe, has prompted a deluge of condemnation: Sweden’s strategy to control the coronavirus has “failed”.

Yet Sweden does not stand out in terms of coronavirus deaths.

The prevailing image of disaster and catastrophe — journalist Garry Linnell says Sweden has been “ravaged” — is sensationalist rubbish, reflecting poor numeracy, poor vocabulary or perhaps a desire to promote what I call health fascism.

Globally, Sweden is 22nd in terms of COVID-19 deaths per million; in Europe it is 12th (excluding microstates).

Sweden’s second wave, so far, appears to be much smaller than the first. Total mortality for this year, for the 11 months up to December 1, is lower than 2015, when there was no hysteria, and is only a little higher than in succeeding years.

The average across this year and last (an unusually low year) is on track to be lower than any two years prior.

Across nine months about 7,900 Swedes, or 0.08 per cent, have died from or with COVID-19, a quarter of those in their 90s, and half over 80 — and vastly fewer than the 100,000-odd that catastrophists warned would die without lockdown. Sweden’s intensive care units are not even close to being full.

In short, the so-called ravaging would be news to Swedes, who have been able to go about their lives relatively normally this year.

Without the relentless drumbeat about cases in the media — often induced by mass testing rather than actual illness — few would even know there was a pandemic in Sweden or anywhere else.

A more reasonable conclusion from the data would be that Sweden has had much the same level of death as other countries, without resorting to mask orders and authoritarian lockdowns, whose costs are yet to be assessed.

In the US, for instance, excess deaths this year are far greater than the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19, and their average age skews lower, suggesting lockdowns, rather than the virus, are to blame.

Every country ahead of Sweden in COVID-19 deaths has imposed far tougher restrictions for far longer. It will take statistical genius to tease out a correlation between lockdowns and lives saved, let alone causation.

If Sweden has failed — as its king, Carl XVI Gustaf, said this week — then practically every country in Europe has failed too. Yet no one is accusing Hungary, which overtook Sweden in coronavirus deaths on Thursday, of failure.

What does distinguish Sweden — and why it is attacked so viciously — is because, rather than copying China, it followed the conventional advice for responding to influenza-like pandemics.

It issued recommendations and banned large gatherings. It eschewed forcing people to wear masks, which countless studies had shown to be ineffective. It tried to strike a balance between health and well-being, broadly defined. Quarantining entire healthy populations for months, by force, was considered so extreme it wasn’t even canvassed. Nor was the mass testing of healthy people.

Lockdowns, to the extent they worked in theory, are meant to “flatten the curve” to give health authorities time to build capacity.

Let’s be frank. This isn’t really a debate about saving lives. Cost-benefit analyses will show the expenditure on saving people from COVID-19 was magnitudes greater than we spend to avoid other deaths.

Communicable diseases kill about five million people, of a far younger age than COVID-19 victims, every year. And there’s barely a peep of concern about that from those who are suddenly dripping with compassion for nursing-home residents, urging action from their salubrious homes with tenured incomes.

This is a debate about the rights of the individual in relation to the state. It’s a debate about whether the ends always justify the means, and whether the risk of a tiny increase in mortality among the over-80s justifies interventions unseen in modern history.

On these deep questions, coronavirus case and death numbers are unlikely to change the minds of many.

Jane Fonda was right when she said COVID-19 was God’s gift for the left. The pandemic has bolstered the public sector as the private sector shrivels. It has fuelled panic that has pushed people to seek safety from government. It has made millions dependent on government for their income. It has seen the rights of assembly, of association, to work, to conduct business, to have a private life all suspended indefinitely in the service of public health. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google brazenly have censored dissent, perhaps to curry favour with governments they fear will regulate them.

In short, 2020 has been a chilling display of how quickly rights fought for across centuries can be snuffed out temporarily. It will be interesting to see how quickly they come back. Maybe we should keep the QR code infrastructure in place just in case. Why shouldn’t governments know your whereabouts if it can help save lives?

As for Sweden, it will be difficult for its leaders, who have started introducing more stringent regulations, to resist the siren call of lockdown. The political economy is simple: there are no political costs from locking down. Only COVID-19 deaths matter politically, so it’s safer to be seen to be doing something than not.

American journalist HL Mencken once said the average man wants to be safe, not free. We should be aware, though, that as technology improves, governments will be able to provide even more safety — but at a much heavier cost to our freedom.

Reprinted from The Australian

Adam Creighton

Adam Creighton

Adam Creighton is an award-winning journalist with a special interest in tax and financial policy. He was a Journalist in Residence at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in 2019.

He’s written for The Economist and The Wall Street Journal from London and Washington DC, and authored book chapters on superannuation for Oxford University Press. He started his career at the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.

He holds a Bachelor of Economics with First Class Honours from the University of New South Wales, and Master of Philosophy in Economics from Balliol College, Oxford, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar.

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