Sweden refused to lock down during the pandemic. How is the country faring now?

A health worker vaccinates an elderly person with Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination clinic in a church in Sollentuna, north of Stockholm, Sweden, March 2, 2021. Photo by Fredrik Sandberg/TT News Agency/via REUTERS

Sweden and its approach to pandemic has become a Rorschach test for people’s views on COVID-19 restrictions. If you think that lockdowns, travel bans, and mask mandates were the right approach, then you probably see Sweden as failure. Unlike almost every other wealthy nation, it held off doing those things. And the result was a much higher death rate than its neighbors Norway and Denmark. Approximately 13,000 Swedes have died since the beginning of the pandemic — half of them in nursing homes. In comparison, only about 700 Norwegians have died of COVID-19.

But Sweden’s death rate is lower than other European countries that locked down and required masks, like France, Italy, and Spain. So if you aren’t a fan of those policies, you probably see Sweden’s light touch as a success story. 

What do the Swedes themselves actually think?  

Journalist Mallory Pickett, who recently wrote “Sweden’s Pandemic Experiment” in the New Yorker, says the country’s coronavirus response was led by top epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who didn't agree with the idea of a lockdown. 

“He and his colleagues really felt that from a public health perspective that the lockdowns didn't make sense. If they closed down the schools, then they would lose a huge amount of their health care workforce because they would be at home taking care of their kids,” she says. 

Instead, the country’s strategy surrounded physical distancing, limiting large gatherings, and staying home while you’re sick. 

Public health officials did not embrace the idea of masks or asymptomatic spread — at least until the winter COVID-19 surge.

“Over the winter and the Christmas holidays, it really did get very bad. And around that time, the strategies did change a little bit. There were some sort of regional lockdowns, and masks are now recommended but in a very limited sense. It's on public transportation during rush hour, and only for people of a certain age.”

Pickett’s father-in-law lives in Sweden, and she says he has a severe lung condition, but he skirted public health recommendations over the past year.  

“He and my mother-in-law were not wearing masks. They were still having their friends over for dinner parties, and just really couldn't be convinced to wear masks and stop doing that,” she says. “Up until very recently, I would say when the health agencies started recommending people to wear masks, masks were something that was sort of hard for us to even talk about because we would just get into the same debates about the evidence for and against masks over and over again.” 

Pickett says it’s still unclear why the pandemic wasn’t as bad as it was in other regions, such as California. And now, studying how different regions responded to the pandemic might be crucial to future pandemic preparedness.

“I think there are clearly things about the Swedish strategy that have failed but …  it could be that Sweden, just by limiting large gatherings and really consistently recommending distancing, was able to prevent a certain number of cases just as well as countries that recommended lockdowns. It does suggest that it's worth evaluating how each country responded to the pandemic, and trying to understand why Sweden wasn't quite as bad as we maybe could have predicted.”