The global response to Covid-19 outbreak with social distancing guidelines, stay-at-home orders and closures of businesses was not followed by Sweden with mixed results. Public health officials in Sweden at the onset of the pandemic implemented “no restrictive measures” on the population and relied on “common sense” approach to fight the virus. Schools, businesses, restaurants, cafes, and all the major facets of the country’s economy remained open despite global outrage and concerns. With high life expectancy rates and one of the world’s oldest population, the Swedish authorities placed the elderly population in quarantine to avoid exposure to their immune system. These measures concerning the elderly and the vulnerable population were the only stringent methods applied to restrict movements in the country. Such practices left the population with total exposure to the virus. There are 2 different ways that a person acquires an immunity or develop immune response: either through infection with the virus and development of antibodies (immune response), which prevents reinfection from the same virus or through vaccination. Anders Tegnell, the country’s state epidemiologist and decision maker in the Swedish government pandemic task force, believed that the best way to fight the virus and reduce its impact on the community was the implementation of herd immunity model. Herd immunity or community immunity occurs when there is a large percentage of the population in a community that acquires antibodies through infection with a virus, and develops immunity, which results in decreased infection rates. The Swedish gamble was based on strong healthcare system and responsible population dealing with an unknown virus pattern.
Anders Tegnell argued that the global approach to the pandemic was risky on both ends of the spectrum. Countries enforcing lockdowns or remaining open are all hedging their bets on the virus-related death toll in the short, medium- and long-term range. Shutting down economies today might save few lives and look good on the Covid-19 tracker board, but the numbers will jump back up as soon as the countries reopen the market. Meanwhile, keeping the economy open will still incur death but ultimately mitigate in the long term through herd immunity. This strategy according to Anders Tegnell will prevent other risks factors associated with lockdowns including mental health issues and collapsed GDPs. In fact, since nobody knows how long the pandemic outbreak will last in the community and impact our lives, he suggested a “reality check approach”. In other words, how many people are we saving while shutting down the economy completely versus how many lives are we saving by putting food on their tables through the open market economy? With the herd immunity approach, the Swedish government hopes to strike the right balance between economy and people’s health. Proponents of this theory use as an example the Indian government lockdown approach of its 1.3 billion population with a death rate that started jumping back up with the loosening restrictions lately. The herd immunity model advocates believe that despite the lockdown enforcement, people have died, and more people are dying today with the reopening of the market. Is the lockdown approach the right way? What would happen when the second, third waves come around? Does it mean that every burst of outbreak will lead to closure and reopening of the economy until we get a vaccine? The Swedish believe that the long-term ramifications of such decisions are unthinkable and unpredictable. How much is too much in terms of trying to contain the virus while keeping everybody away from their life’s duties and social responsibilities? Having said that, the herd immunity approach chosen by the Swedish government relies upon a robust healthcare system ranked among the top 5 in the world.
However, public health concerns should prime other interests during a pandemic outbreak. Cost/benefit analysis and other economic considerations cannot guide public interests in current times of uncertainty. All 195 countries in the world should have a united and collaborative approach to the fight against Covid-19. A strategic global attempt to flatten the curve and thus reduce the impact on the healthcare system should be our top priority at this point. The herd immunity model still presents flaws with inconclusive evidence of the virus patterns in human bodies. We still do not know if people can get immune from the Covid-19 antibodies and for how long. So far, there is no conclusive evidence that a recovered Covid-19 patient cannot be reinfected, which questions the antibodies strategy in herd immunity model. Some scientists argue that the herd immunity strategy is careless and the Covid-19 tracker results for Sweden are indicative of the “nonsense public health approach” used by the Swedish government. The statistics show that the Swedish virus-related death toll is higher than Nordic neighbors and higher than the US in terms of death per capita. Lena Einhorn, a Swedish virologist is one the twenty-two scientists in the country that signed a letter urging the government to change tactics “we have to let the current treatment methods and vaccine research take place while preserving people’s lives in confinement”. These scientists argue that their government is gambling with people’s lives without accurate and conclusive information pertaining to the virus. Adding that social distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders in other countries have helped flatten the curve while progressing in the research field. The latest figures from Johns Hopkins University show that the death toll continue to rise in the country with a death rate above12 percent, which ranks Sweden among the highest in the world based on data gathered from countries with more than 1000 confirmed cases. Today, with more than 3000 deaths and 17000 active cases, Anders Tegnell recognizes that the nation’s plan of “not enforcing lockdowns” was not the best strategy after all. On a different note, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that a global recession is inevitable, which begs the question of how much economy has Sweden saved using this approach? Clearly, the Swedish government lost the bet while exposing its citizens and practicing unconventional public health methods during a pandemic outbreak.