How Sweden proved the world wrong about lockdown

The evidence is clear: authoritarian restrictions did not save more lives.

Fredrik Andersson and Lars Jonung

Topics Covid-19 Science & Tech UK World

In 2020, countries across the world followed in the footsteps of China and locked down hard against Covid-19. Liberties were drastically curtailed. As was economic activity, forcing governments to borrow tens if not hundreds of billions of pounds each to keep businesses and furloughed workers afloat.

In Europe, one notable exception to this was Sweden. The Swedish government, despite facing heavy criticism, decided against imposing tight restrictions on social activity. The evidence now overwhelmingly suggests that Sweden made the right choice.

Did lockdown restrictions do more harm than good? Did they even work at all? We tried to answer these questions in a recent paper for the journal, Economic Affairs. We looked at how different OECD countries in Europe, including the UK, fared during the pandemic – both in terms of the economy and excess deaths. We took a particular interest in Sweden.

Although we could not explore every possible impact of the various lockdown measures, our conclusions were straightforward: countries that imposed more lockdown measures did not experience lower excess death rates. In fact, Sweden had one of the lowest excess death rates towards the end of the pandemic, with fewer people dying compared with a normal pre-pandemic year.

It is true that Sweden fared less well during the spring of 2020. However, these problems were temporary and limited to certain regions. This was mainly due to Swedes returning from winter vacations in the Alps, where the virus was spreading rapidly. In most parts of Sweden, the spread was modest and fully in line with that observed in other Nordic countries.

In fact, in our research, we could not find any correlation between lockdowns and excess deaths. Our results do not imply that every single lockdown measure was ineffective. Since all countries in Europe imposed a large number of social-distancing restrictions, including Sweden, we can only conclude that imposing full lockdown measures and ordering people to stay at home had little additional impact, if any. (In fact, our paper found a positive correlation between harsher lockdowns and excess deaths, though this was not statistically significant.)

The impact of lockdowns on mortality rates may have been inconsequential, but the economic effects were overwhelmingly negative. The more a country locked down, the larger the decline in GDP. The UK recorded a fall in GDP of almost 10 per cent – the largest decline in output in modern history. In Sweden, in contrast, the fall in economic output was actually less than that during the financial crisis of 2008. The Swedish economy had fully recovered by early 2021 and is now about six per cent larger than it was in 2019.

To compensate for this substantial fall in economic activity, most governments were forced to adopt large fiscal measures to support households and businesses. The UK’s public debt exploded. As of last year, debt had risen by £8,400 per head in Britain compared with just £3,000 in Sweden. In fact, in Sweden only a small budget deficit was recorded in 2020. The budget was already back in balance in 2021.

The consequences of lockdown are still being felt. The UK’s high debt levels and debt interest repayments have led the government to put public investment on hold, which will, in turn, hold back future economic growth. In other words, the short-term spending spree during the pandemic will crowd out important investment in the future.

Tellingly, there is no public debate in Sweden about where public spending should be cut or which taxes should rise. Instead of looking toward a future of austerity, Swedes are debating whether the government should spend more or cut taxes with the money it now has.

Certainly, Sweden did not do everything right during the pandemic. The government itself admitted that in 2022, when it concluded its inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. However, Sweden did manage to succeed in a few key areas where other nations failed spectacularly. Notably, it did not panic during the crisis. It considered how its policies would impact society as a whole. It did not just focus on limiting cases of Covid. And it did not ignore the potential long-term effects of lockdown. Above all, it recognised that the pandemic policy of China’s authoritarian government should not have served as a guide for a liberal democracy.

Of course, our study isn’t perfect. We could never possibly cover every single health aspect or economic indicator. And yet our analysis does reveal some cold, hard facts about the real cost of lockdowns. The burden is now on the pro-lockdown camp to prove that their disastrous policies were worth it.

Fredrik N G Andersson is an associate professor at the Department of Economics at Lund University.

Lars Jonung is a professor emeritus at Lund University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Science & Tech UK World


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