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As COVID-19 data piles up, did Sweden’s anti-lockdown approach have it right all along?

News

Months into the lockdowns that quickly followed the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.K. health minister Matt Hancock spoke for his counterparts across the world when he said he was tired of the “f—–g Sweden argument.”

As the rest of the world was imposing draconian lockdowns, Sweden was bucking the trend, imposing lighter restrictions and leaning towards recommendations and guidelines over laws.

Recently leaked WhatsApp messages revealed that Hancock even told his aides to bring him some easily digestible bullet points about “why Sweden is wrong” and the international press soon followed suit.

The New York Times described Sweden as a “pariah state” and other media organizations counted the “death toll” from the first wave of infections in the country. Politicians around the world, even then-U.S. president Donald Trump, warned about taking any advice from Swedish epidemiologists.

But with three years of distance from the early harrowing days of the pandemic and mountains of empirical data piling up, a new picture is starting to emerge. Some experts are arguing that Sweden had it right all along.

Adding up the numbers

A new report from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, makes the case that Sweden has come out of the pandemic in better overall shape than almost all of Europe.

“One reason why Sweden got through the pandemic in a much better shape than many scholars, journalists, and politicians expected was that (these people) only thought in terms of strict government controls or business as usual. They failed to consider a third option: that people adapt voluntarily when they realize that lives are at stake,” writes Johan Norberg, the author of the Cato report.

A review of available data shows Sweden ranging from the middle of the pack to best in Europe on most indicators, and massively over-performing the dire predictions from experts predicting tens of thousands of deaths in Sweden during the first few months of the pandemic.

In terms of cumulative COVID-19 deaths, Sweden ended up in the middle of the pack in Europe with 2,322 COVID-19 deaths per million people.

That compares favourably to the United States and the United Kingdom, both of which suffered more than 3,300 deaths per million people, and unfavourably to other Nordic countries, which were all below 2,000 deaths per million people.

Those numbers are tough to compare because countries count these deaths differently. Norway, for example, only counted COVID-19 deaths if the virus was the primary cause of death. In Sweden, anyone who died while positive for COVID-19 was counted.

According to self-reported data on excess deaths, which count the number of deaths that occurred compared to a normal year and which is a better comparison, Sweden leads Europe with an excess death rate of 4.4 percent for the three-year period from 2020 to 2022.

Italy, which suffered from an early and traumatic wave of infections early in 2020 reported a three-year excess death of 12.3 percent. France’s rate was 9.2 percent, Germany’s was 8.6 percent, and Norway’s was 5 percent. The average rate in Europe was 11.1 percent.

Even among excess death calculations from other sources that use different time frames, the results are broadly similar, with the Nordic countries clustering at the bottom of the chart and Sweden among them.

The economy and schools stayed open

Sweden also bucked the global trends on education and the economy, which was one of the primary arguments used to support the country’s approach to the pandemic.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that the global economy was nearly three percent smaller than expected in 2021, while the Eurozone was 2.1 percent smaller. In Sweden, where the economy is export dependent and vulnerable to global downturns, the economy was still 0.4 percent bigger than expected in 2021.

While North American schoolchildren suffered significant learning loss after enduring virtual education during waves of infections, a recent study found that Swedish children are on track when it comes to literacy metrics and concluded that “open schools benefitted Swedish primary school students.”

And while research has shown that American kids fell behind on their regular vaccinations when the focus in health care shifted to COVID-19 in 2020, the vaccination rate for Swedish children was actually up in 2020.

How did Sweden do it?

The question of how and why Sweden managed to buck the global trends on pandemic response has several answers.

Sweden’s early spike of infections resulted in a wave of critical press from around the world but, according to cumulative COVID-19 statistics, most countries that imposed harsh lockdowns seem to have only delayed those deaths.

Sweden’s excess death rate spiked in 2020, as the virus swept through nursing homes in the country. By 2022, the numbers had levelled out as the omicron variant of the virus blanketed the globe.

“The other countries managed to delay some deaths, but now, three years after, we end up at around the same place,” said Preben Aavitsland, a Norwegian epidemiologist.

Although some press reports suggested that Swedish decision-makers regretted the path the country took, it wasn’t actually the case.

“It’s not like that at all, we still think the strategy is good, but there are always improvements you can make, especially when you have the benefit of hindsight,” said Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, in response to these reports.

Tegnell said that, in retrospect, he would have done more to protect nursing homes and provide testing kits.

Norberg, the author of the Cato report, argued that Sweden’s unique division of power when it comes to governmental agencies may have been a key factor.

The directors-general of these agencies are independent of the government and have set terms, meaning they aren’t replaced when the government changes. It’s extremely rare for the government to replace the head of one of these agencies before the term ends.

It gives the agencies more power and, Norberg argues, it also gives the politicians an alibi if the advice is controversial.

Perhaps easier to explain is the intense backlash against the Swedish model, as illustrated by Hancock’s WhatsApp messages and angry outburst about the “f—–g Sweden argument.”

Aavitsland, the Norwegian epidemiologist, argues that Sweden’s method became a cudgel against politicians and health experts who were under intense pressure during a global crisis.

“Sweden became the contrast they did not want. Sweden undermined their mantra that we had no choice and forced them to explain to their citizens why they did what they did,” said Aavitsland.

“For these colleagues, it would have been better if everyone had done the same. They hid their own insecurities by lambasting Sweden.”

As conservative politicians follow public opinion on pronoun policies, the two sides are speaking different languages

News

In a matter of months the New Brunswick government has gone from lonely pariah to trendsetter in the debate over the rights of parents to be informed when their child changes his or her pronouns or gender identity at school.

Since New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs started fighting for his political life over a policy to notify parents about these issues, the provincial governments of Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Manitoba have publicly announced they support those rights, attracting both praise and criticism.

Perhaps more importantly, the more recent announcements have followed several polls indicating the majority of respondents of all age groups support a parent’s right to be informed about a child changing his or her pronouns. Following one such poll from the Angus Reid Institute, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has also stated that schools should leave conversations about LGBTQ issues with children to parents.

Mitch Heimpel, the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada, says parents became far more familiar with teacher-student relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic when remote learning was the norm. 

“Parents now have an understanding of what is going on at their kids’ school versus what they thought was going on at their kids’ school, and that has, across the political spectrum, raised alarm bells,” says Heimpel. 

This slew of announcements in favour of parents’ rights by provincial governments was preceded by New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs’ government, which made national headlines in June when it revised its policies to mandate that parents be informed if their child changes their pronouns. 

New Brunswick Teachers’ Association president Peter Lagacy called the Higgs government’s moves “unfortunate,” and urged it to reconsider its stance. 

Michael Zwaagstra, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher in Manitoba says a union’s leadership will not always reflect the feelings of all teachers. He also says that those who do choose to run for leadership positions within a union tend to be progressive, which is reflected in their opposition to enhanced parental rights. 

“Teachers don’t all have the same opinion on this, and that’s fine,” says Zwaagstra. “When a teacher’s union president gives a position on this, don’t assume they’re speaking on behalf of all teachers.” 

Zwaagstra worries about a decline in public school enrollment if teachers’ unions and progressive politicians push back against parental rights if polls suggest they are supported by the vast majority of Canadians. 

“It’s one of the fastest ways to undermine public education, by creating this default setting where there’s no trust between school and the community,” says Zwaagstra. 

Former Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne criticized both the Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Pierre Poilievre on X, formerly known as Twitter, for their statements regarding parental rights, accusing them of harbouring transphobia and homophobia. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also publicly opposed the policy decisions taken by New Brunswick’s government in June. Every government that has legislated or spoken in favour of parental rights has thus far been led by conservative premiers, who currently govern all but two of Canada’s 10 provinces.

Heimpel says many progressives who oppose a parent’s right to know if their child changes their pronouns, as proposed by those provincial governments, have been caught off guard by the broad public consensus in favour of those rights. After several decades of progress on other issues like marriage equality, Heimpel says many progressives believed that gender identity was part of the same playbook. 

“Obviously, there are complicating factors here whenever you take a group of people, especially parents, and you start involving very young children in the public policy debate in terms of how they should be educated, the values they should be taught, the information they should be given, and the maturity level at which they’re able to process that information,” says Heimpel. 

The Angus Reid Institute poll released this week showed an overwhelming 78 percent of respondents believed that parents should be informed about their child’s change of pronouns, while 43 percent believed parents must also provide consent to such a change.The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from July 26-31, 2023 among a representative randomized sample of 3,016 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 1.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.. This follows a June poll from Leger which found 57 percent of respondents believed parents should be informed in the same situationAn online survey of 1,523 Canadians aged 18+ was completed between May 5 and 7, 2023 using Leger’s online panel. For comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,523 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.5 percent, 19 times out of 20.

Heimpel does not believe there will ever be a bipartisan consensus on the issue of gender identity in schools and parental rights. 

“The two sides are speaking in entirely different values languages,” says Heimpel. 

Darryl and Milena Weinberg are co-founders of School Pods, which they describe as a Canadian organization that is a hybrid between a homeschool co-op, a mini-school, and a private school. The Weinbergs are also skeptical of there ever being a consensus regarding pronouns, gender identity, and schools. 

“I don’t think at this point that too many people are going to be changing their minds on just about anything. I think the days of rational dialogue and civil debate are over,” says Darryl Weinberg. 

Zwaagstra says that communication with parents, on all issues, is one of the keys to a good education.  

“The purpose of schools is to serve communities, and to educate students and obviously to provide information to parents,” says Zwaagstra. “I’ve always felt that on any topic, you have to have maximum communication and openness between the school and the home.”