Such is Life

Robert Brooks Contributor
Such is Life
Read Time: approx. 3:12

This is the top story from our daily newsletter published on October 13, 2020. To have this and more delivered directly to your inbox scroll down and enter your email or click here to sign up. Photo Credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Yelp Inc.


Yesterday morning David Leonhardt of the New York Times began his paper’s newsletter with an observation. He said that “The White House event to celebrate Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination — a gathering that appears to have spread the coronavirus — would have violated the law in Sweden,” because currently public events in the Nordic country are limited to a 50 person maximum. Leonhardt used this anecdote as a launchpad into a larger analysis of how Sweden has handled the pandemic. Remember, “Sweden has become notorious for its laissez-faire response,” — something noted by both sides. The verdict on whether or not this response worked, however, is what’s up for debate. Here is a left-right comparison of Sweden’s progress starting with Leonhardt’s piece in the New York Times.

On the Left: Leonhardt says he thinks there are three lessons to be learned from Sweden. One: “It is not a success story,” Leonhardt writes. “Overall, Sweden’s decision to let many activities continue unabated and its hope that growing immunity to the virus would protect people does not look good. The country has suffered more than five times as many deaths per capita as neighboring Denmark and about 10 times as many as Finland or Norway.” Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told Leonhardt: “It was a terrible idea to do what they did.” Two: “Sweden did more than some people realize. It closed schools for students ages 16 and older. It encouraged residents to keep their distance from one another. And it imposed the ban on big gatherings, which looks especially smart now.” Leonhardt says, “Given this, it’s less surprising that Sweden’s recent virus performance looks mediocre rather than horrible.” Three: Leonhardt does point out that Swedish officials have been right to worry about “sustainability.” Leonhardt says “Strict lockdowns bring their own steep costs for society. With a vaccine at least months away, societies probably need to grapple with how to restart activities while minimizing risk. Sweden’s leaders do not seem to have found the ideal strategy, but they are asking a reasonable question. ‘We see a disease that we’re going to have to handle for a long time,’ Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s top epidemiologist, told The Financial Times, ‘and we need to build up systems for doing that.’” Leonhardt concludes by saying, “The fact that Sweden is no longer an extreme outlier in new virus cases — even as life there looks more normal than in most places — offers a new opportunity to assess risk.”

On the Right: Dan Hannan provides somewhat of a rebuttal in his opinion piece for the Washington Examiner titled: “The better Sweden does on the coronavirus, the angrier they get.” In response to some of the points above Hannan says, “It is true that Sweden has had more coronavirus fatalities than other Nordic states. But remember that the lockdown was only intended to buy time. Infection rates are now rising faster in the rest of Scandinavia as things catch up.” Hannan continues, saying, “As for the argument that the Swedish economy has taken as bad a hit as everyone else’s, it is nonsense. Obviously, a medium-sized country will be affected by a global downturn, as well as by its own voluntary distancing measures. But Sweden got off more lightly than most. Its GDP dropped by 8.3% in the second quarter of this year (compared to 2019). In the United States, the drop was 9.5%, in Germany 11.7%, in Canada 13.5%, in Britain 21.7%, and in Spain 22.1%. In 2020 as a whole, according to a new paper by Danske Bank, Sweden is expected to see a 3.3% contraction, compared to 4.3% for the U.S., 5.8% for the United Kingdom, and 8.3% for the eurozone.” Hannan also points to arguments that say, “You can’t compare us to Sweden. It has a low population density.” He writes: Yes, Sweden has a low population density if you divide its population by its land area. But Swedes are not evenly spaced out across their country. Most of them live in towns and cities — 85% of the population occupies 2% of its surface area. The idea that Swedes live shyly among the birch trees, plunging into their chilly lakes at the footfall of a stranger, is one of the oddest arguments to have come out of this whole unedifying debate.”

Flag This: One of our subscribers is currently living in Sweden so we asked him to share his unfiltered thoughts about their unique approach to dealing with the coronavirus. The following response is lightly edited for clarity. This subscriber said “daily life has pretty much returned to normal with a few exceptions. For example, there are hand sanitizing stations everywhere. There is no mask-mandate from the government but some people, particularly elderly citizens, have chosen to wear them. Restaurants and bars in some of the larger cities appear to be operating at full capacity. Social distancing is required, however, and employees must thoroughly clean the tables before new customers arrive.” In terms of what has worked, he thinks the “laissez-faire approach has certainly been great for business which has also helped people from a mental perspective.” He also said, “time will tell, however, if this leads to more infections.” He said “quality of life is very important in Swedish culture” so “shutting down bars and restaurants” would have “been a massive blow psychologically speaking.” He does “wonder if this same approach would have worked in larger, more densely populated countries. Keep in mind Sweden only has 10.2 million people. New York City alone has nearly 8.4 million people.” He said “the only sector of the economy that has faced serious restrictions is entertainment. Concerts, plays, and sporting events have suffered, generating virtually no income.” For example, he plays professional hockey, and right now “there are only 50 fans allowed in the rink per game.” He concludes by saying it might take years for certain businesses to recover from the pandemic, even though Sweden didn’t clamp down as hard as other countries.” While the pandemic has been nearly impossible to comprehend or explain, one commonly used saying is making its way around Sweden: “Sånt är livet” or “Such is Life”.