Coronavirus: Sweden built herd immunity without lockdown, now the world follows suit

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As continuing lockdowns until a coronavirus vaccine is developed is proving unsustainable because of the enormous economic and social costs, many countries in the world are now emulating the Swedish model of building herd immunity without imposing lockdowns.

Sweden, unlike many of its counterparts in the West, has bolstered immunity among the young and the healthy sections of its population, without declaring a lockdown or other emergency measures to fight the coronavirus.

Sweden’s neighbors Denmark and Finland have reopened schools for young children, while Germany has allowed small businesses to reopen. Italy and France are expected to follow suit. Even in the US, President Donald Trump is eventually pushing the country toward the Swedish model which he has initially criticized.

Read more: School closures reduced spread of coronavirus by 40-60 percent: Wuhan research

Instead of imposing harsh controls, fines, and policing, Sweden has asked its citizens to practice social distancing on a voluntary basis. Restaurants have remained open, albeit lightly trafficked, and young children continue to go to school. And no apps have been introduced to trace people’s location.

People visit the Raslambshovsparken Park in Stockholm, Sweden, on Saturday April 18, 2020. (AP)
People visit the Raslambshovsparken Park in Stockholm, Sweden, on Saturday April 18, 2020. (AP)

However, the Swedish government has imposed some light measures such as banning bar service, meaning standing isn’t allowed at bars, as well as public gatherings of more than 50 people and introducing distance learning in high schools and universities.

The government’s broader strategy appears to be aimed at achieving herd immunity, although the authorities have not officially announced it.

In the long run, some say this type of mass immunity will decrease the total cost of the pandemic.

Achieving herd immunity safely

However, the success of the Swedish strategy relied much on certain cultural aspects which are quintessentially Swedish, such as high level of trust among people as well as between people and the government, and people’s reliance on official recommendations. These traits which are a rarity beyond Scandinavia make it more difficult for other countries to go the Swedish way.

However, there are drawbacks to Sweden’s strategy that must be addressed, such as its failure in protecting its elderly and immigrant populations from coronavirus. The elderly constituted over 50 percent of the total coronavirus fatalities in the country, while poor immigrants who worked in service sectors and were not able to work remotely bore the brunt of the pandemic in the country.

Trains move towards T-Centralen station in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP)
Trains move towards T-Centralen station in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP)

In addition, the Swedish approach has attracted some criticism as well. While Sweden’s per capita death remained lower compared to major European countries, it was higher compared with other Nordic countries.

But Swedish authorities say the country’s strategy has proven effective in the second phase of the virus by reducing the number of infections and deaths when much of the world is experiencing a new wave.

The capital city of Stockholm is expected to reach herd immunity as early as this month, according to Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency.

If Stockholm achieves 40 percent of immunity, it could be enough to stop the spread of coronavirus by mid-June, the Stockholm University mathematician Tom Britton was quoted saying in Foreign Affairs.

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