Ever pragmatic, Sweden knows the cost of total lockdown is wildly disproportionate to the facts
I've always admired the Swedes. Even compared to their Nordic neighbours, they are unequivocally non-conformist. True to form, Sweden is currently the only country in the Western world which appears to be handling the coronavirus with such restraint. Or at least, putting off extreme intervention for as long as possible.
"Sweden cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society," stated its public health secretary Johan Carlson last week, saying out loud what so many are thinking: That the horse has already bolted, a vaccine is probably 18 months away, the coming weeks and months will inevitably overwhelm national health systems, but that far more lives and livelihoods will be destroyed as a result of shutting entire industries than lives lost to this flu strain.
This a disease, now all-but over in the country it hit first, that has killed 25,237 people worldwide over three months. Every year, mosquitoes kill 130,000 people over that same time-frame. Recessions kill too, albeit in a longer, more drawn-out ordeal - and that’s exactly what Sweden is so wary of.
Sweden has currently recorded 3,046 cases of coronavirus; compared to 3,687 in next door Norway. Since Norway entered lockdown two weeks ago, their unemployment rate has quadrupled. In Sweden, bars and restaurants have stayed open - table service only, to limit crowding - only gatherings of more than 500 have been banned, and schools remain in tact for under the 16s. Life there remains relatively normal.
Will this country - so proud of its cool, calm, collected national identity - pay bitterly for this comparatively lax response in the weeks to come? That remains to be seen, but so far its government has been prepared to roll the dice; or more specifically, to let its people decide for themselves what they're willing to sacrifice.
To keep things up and running for as long as possible was certainly the sentiment of Boris Johnson - now himself a diagnosed coronavirus victim - before he bottled it and put the UK into full-blown lockdown last week. And that of Donald Trump, who has always put dollar signs front and centre of his decisions. Crude as he may be in his handling, the US president is trying, for the greater good of the economy, to limit the financial damage of this pandemic as much as possible, knowing full well that this will have human casualties.
In Sweden’s case, it is surely not that the government cares less about its population than other European countries; indeed this is one of the most welfare progressive nations on Earth. It is just being pragmatic.
Forced to lay off 90 per cent of staff at its national airline SAS following the worldwide travel bans, authorities are now fast-track training those employees to take on temporary jobs in healthcare; supporting doctors and nurses in basic administrative duties, sterilising equipment, and liaising between patients and their families. A genius redistribution of resources.
Universities have closed but schools have stayed open for those under the age of 16, on the basis that older students can better manage remote learning, and judged on the too-high cost of taking at least a quarter of the country's workforce out of action to care for their perfectly healthy children. Not least the damage it would do to their kids' education; most parents right now will tell you that home-schooling is hideously impractical.
This is where Sweden has its priorities in check. Fairly early on, it became clear that this virus is unusually kind on young, healthy people, especially children, with only a handful of exceptions. Of course it makes sense for the elderly at high risk, many of whom are retired and don't contribute to the economy anyway, to stay behind closed doors.
But to lock away everyone else? Looking at the numbers (the death rate for over 80s is about 14 per cent, for under 50s it’s 0.4 per cent, for under 40s it's 0.2 per cent, and so on until it reaches zero for under 9s), I myself would gladly risk re-entering society and contracting coronavirus. So long as I’m not mixing with high-risk individuals - this obviously being crucial - shouldn't it be as much my choice as whether I wear a seatbelt or smoke cigarettes?
It's perfectly possible I've already had it. The more people we test, the more we see how widespread this disease really is; and the less deadly it proves to be. Of the 800 coronavirus cases found on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, a new report cited by the Japan Times this week found that four-fifths of those infected showed only mild symptoms, or none at all.
So we know not only that this pandemic has already infected hugely higher numbers of people than initially thought, but also that for the vast, vast majority of carriers - as has with Boris and even Prince Charles - it's no worse than having a mild cold.
Even my 85-year-old grandmother shudders at the amount of debt that awaits future generations - and these are her words not mine - "all to keep thousands of oldies alive a little longer".
Sweden, like the UK, may well bend to peer pressure in the very near future. For now, it is conducting an experiment in how much (or little) they can get away with when it comes to intervention, and the results will be key when we come through the other side.
In the very likely event of a second wave come autumn, the UK, still licking its wounds, might well take a leaf out of Sweden’s book and look more soberly at the economic cost of this lockdown. It’s hard to see how we can afford it now. Surely we can’t do it all over again before the year is out.