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Sweden has a way of triggering people. It represents everything we’re supposed to do or everything we’re not supposed to do. It is the welfare state at its best or multiculturalism at its worst. True to form, or contrary to form, Sweden is now setting off everyone in its handling of the coronavirus. 

Unlike most of the developed world, including neighboring Norway or Denmark, Sweden has kept its elementary schools running and allowed most its businesses, including restaurants and bars, to remain open. Travel in and out of the country remains possible for E.U. nationals. And social distancing remains, for the most part, voluntary, provided the group in question has fewer than 50 people. In short, Sweden has refused to join the rest of us in a lockdown.

This has caused a lot of traditional Sweden lovers and Sweden bashers to trade places. Much of the MSNBC left, which normally loves Sweden, now shakes its head. Much of the Fox News right, which often scorns Sweden, is now a fan

Populists on both sides are critical, with the populist left interpreting Sweden’s response as an outgrowth of a cold-blooded neoliberalism (market efficiencies over humanity) and the populist right seeing it as an outgrowth of a fanatical globalism (loose borders over health). To be sure, these are broad stereotypes with huge exceptions (some populists love what Sweden is doing and some Fox News types hate it), but they’re useful as a big picture.

Meanwhile, many of those on the establishment right are now looking to Sweden as a role model of keeping the show going and letting commerce proceed. “Sweden has courageously decided not to endorse a harsh quarantine, and consequently it hasn’t forced its residents into lockdown,” wrote John Fund and Joel Hay in National Review. “Sweden is developing herd immunity by refusing to panic.”It’s understandable that people have strong reactions to Sweden’s experiment. After all, every fight we have over how some other country has been handling this crisis is a fight we’re having with ourselves about how to handle it. 

Have we gone too far or not far enough? Should we try to push cases to zero or just flatten the curve? What happens if we loosen up sooner rather than later? How many deaths is a growing economy worth? But all of the baggage we bring to our conceptions of Sweden—if we happen to have conceptions of Sweden—gets in the way of giving its policies a fair appraisal. 

Whatever comes of Sweden’s approach, it’ll have something to teach us about the spread of this disease. So let’s try to understand what’s behind it and what we’re seeing. To start with, it’s a myth that Sweden is doing nothing about the virus. 

Most Swedes have changed their habits a lot. Schools for older kids are closed, as are universities. People are working from home, when they can, and the elderly are being urged to keep to themselves. Gatherings of over 50 people are prohibited, and ski resorts are closed. Restaurants and bars are allowing table service only, and grocery stores are installing glass dividers between customers and cashiers. People who go to Stockholm may be stunned to see bars and cafés with customers, but they’re seeing only the Swedes who choose to run higher risks. They’re not seeing all the Swedes who are staying home.

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Second, contrary to the claims of John Fund and Joel Hay and many others, Sweden isn’t trying to develop “herd immunity,” meaning a state of affairs in which so many people get the virus that the virus runs out of kindling. (At least, Swedish officials claim they aren’t doing this, and they would have a lot to lose by lying about it.) 

Instead, Sweden intends to take as loose an approach as possible that still keeps case growth down to non-exponential numbers. “We are not in the containment phase,” said Sweden’s chief state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, last month. “We are in the mitigation phase.”What Tegnell means is that the coronavirus is all over the world now, and, without a vaccine or a massive outbreak that brings about herd immunity, you won’t get rid of it. 

Even if you do what China did and lock down so hard that you eradicate the virus within your borders, it will return as soon as you allow any travel in and out of your country to resume. So Sweden has based its policies on two premises: (1) The coronavirus can only be managed, not suppressed. Short of going full Wuhan on the entire planet, we’ll have to live with it. (2) People won’t tolerate severe lockdown for more than a month or two, since boredom, isolation, and economic desperation will get overwhelming. 

With these premises in mind, Sweden has pumped the brakes instead of slamming on them. You close school for older kids, but you keep grade school going, because evidence so far suggests that younger children are not a major cause of transmission for the novel coronavirus. (The opposite is true of influenza: Kids are the big spreaders.) You prohibit standing room and shoulder-to-shoulder seating in popular bars and restaurants, but you allow them to keep operating with greater space between tables and customers. You encourage people to keep a physical distance among one another, but you don’t command it. 

The question, then, isn’t whether Sweden is going to see more deaths from the coronavirus in the short term than it would with a total lockdown. It obviously will. The question is whether it’s going to see exponentially more cases. So far, that hasn’t happened. With unchecked spreading of the virus, a country could expect to see a mortality rate that was 10 or 100 or 1,000 times higher than that of a country with strict controls in place. But Sweden has a mortality rate that’s only about twice as high as that of Denmark, which has a strict lockdown (0.01% of the population dead versus about 0.005% of the population dead), and only half that of France. Its hospitals are challenged but not overwhelmed. 

Between the unhappy poles of shutting down society entirely or eliminating COVID-19 deaths entirely, it may have found a balance it can live with. An imperfect but useful analogy is to the highway speed limit. Set it to 10 miles per hour, and you might save a lot of lives, but at a huge cost to efficiency and sanity. Set it to something a bit higher, like 40 miles per hour, and you could still save three quarters of those lives but still allow a semblance of normal transit to continue. In this analogy, most of the world has lowered the speed limit to 10 miles per hour. It saves lives, but people won’t tolerate it for long. 

Sweden has lowered its limit to 40 miles per hour. That saves fewer lives, but people can live with it for a long time. It prevents carnage on one side and madness on the other. And you might save more lives overall.

T.A. FRANK, Vanity Fair, April 16, 2020