In the span of 3 months, COVID-19 has quickly and inevitably morphed from a localized community issue in Wuhan to a decidedly international one. A majority of countries across the world have opted to implement a full lockdown to curb the spread, but how exactly do these lockdowns prevent the virus from spreading, and how come some countries aren’t following lockdown guidelines?
Country wide lockdowns, as well as widespread testing, have been part of the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 advice since the pandemic began (though it seems that, unfortunately, in many countries widespread testing is still not a reality). The rationale behind imposing a lockdown is a very simple one: If people don’t leave their houses, how can they possibly spread a virus? For a majority of countries this simple strategy seems to be working pretty well. As of the 8thof April, Wuhan is finally removing its lockdown after 76 days with Norway also reporting no new cases for the past 2 days.
Norway has been one of the countries to take the lockdown most seriously. Since March 12th, Norway completely shut down airports, schools, universities and non-essential businesses as well as certain borders to neighboring countries. Although this action has had a severe impact on the Norwegian economy, the strategy has clearly worked with a total of only 108 deaths as of the 9th of April and 6000 confirmed cases with this number already plateauing, making it one of the safest countries in the world. There is, however, one standout Norwegian neighbor which seems to have taken its strategy in an entirely different direction, and that is the curious case of Sweden.
At the time of writing, with currently 10,151 cases with 887 deaths and more deaths being projected for the coming days, Sweden is still in the exponential phase of rising case numbers. The Swedish Public Health Agency still does not believe that a nationwide lockdown is necessary. In the most stereotypically Swedish turn of events I’ve ever seen, they have instead diverted their attention to merely advising the public on the dangers of the disease and ‘recommending’ people to stay home. The idea behind this strategy, says State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, is to ‘flatten the curve’ to prevent Sweden’s health services from becoming overwhelmed. It seems that the only difference in method between Sweden and other European countries is that Swedish authorities trust their citizens to be sensible and stay at home instead of having to force them to do so. To me, this liberal strategy when lives are at risk seems about as naïve as trusting a 4-year-old with a tray of priceless bone china.
Having said that, on closer inspection the matter isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. The Swedish have what’s called the Basic Laws of Sweden, a collection of four laws essentially akin to the American Constitution. One of these four basic laws is called the Instrument of Government. A key constituent of this is the ‘freedom of association’, guaranteeing the freedom of its citizens to be able to associate for public or private purposes and the ‘freedom of assembly’, guaranteeing its citizens the right to organize meetings. There is a law that allows the government to restrict ‘an area’ to prevent the spread of disease, however, it is hotly contested how large this area would ever be allowed to be. An area too large might undermine the freedom laws present in the constitution. Enforcing a country-wide lockdown in Sweden then seems to be akin to asking all Americans to turn in their firearms to the government.
However, I suspect, as many other writers do, that there might be more to the Swedish strategy than meets the eye. The argument over constitutional laws when actual lives are at stake does not seem to be a normatively strong defense to allow for the deaths of the elderly and vulnerable. It would stand to reason that, similar to Iran, Sweden might not want to impose a total lockdown on its populace as this would cause their economy to tank. The Swedish government could instead hope that, by allowing exposure to the virus, it’s general population will hopefully develop herd immunity. This would mean that they wouldn’t over-subscribe hospital beds or produce large death tolls thanks to a reasonably well-developed healthcare system. This would therefore allow its economy to tick over without having huge repercussions due to the virus.
Despite my over-zealous conjecture, the current Swedish strategy, regardless of whether they actually want to impose a lockdown or not, is effectively throwing it’s elderly and vulnerable under the COVID bus. A lack of enforced lockdown allows infection to spread to clinics and nursing homes all in the name of economy and a hands-off constitutional approach. Allowing free movement to go to places such as hairdressers, restaurants and pubs during a pandemic that kills the most vulnerable all in the name of upholding abstract constitutional freedoms is, for a society, a morally indefensible position.
Although I have criticized the Swedish strategy towards COVID-19, it is still too early on in the pandemic to fully conclude which strategies would work best. If the Swedish strategy really works, they could be the country to come out of this pandemic with a relatively functional economy and widespread herd immunity, however unlikely I believe this outcome to be. As Tegnell himself postulates, ‘Sooner or later, people are going to go out anyway.’ So, what is the point of trying to impose a lockdown? Only time will tell.
Words by Olly Singleton