Numbers from Our World in Data

How Sweden measures up to Denmark, Finland, and Norway

Our World in Data

Graph created by John Erik Stacy using data from
Legend: The graph compares total deaths (lines) and deaths per day (bars) between Sweden and across Denmark, Finland, and Norway. On May 5, COVID-19 deaths reported so far for Sweden were 2,769, compared to 941 for Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined. Note also that Sweden has seen several days with more than 100 COVID-19 deaths per day, whereas the worst day for DE+FI+NO was just over 50 deaths.

The Norwegian American

Sweden has been the outlier in its official response to the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike most other countries in Europe, it has encouraged voluntary measures instead of imposing lockdown. The result so far is that the infection has killed many more Swedes than it has in the rest of the Nordic countries combined. 

But, unlike Britain’s Boris Johnson, decision-makers in Sweden have not drastically changed their messaging or approach to the crisis. Remote learning and work-from-home arrangements are part of life in Sweden right now, as well as a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. But it has no stay-at-home order, and bars and restaurants remain open, albeit with restrictions on spacing and capacity.

Authorities in Sweden seem to be willing to take a longer-term view and accept a spike in deaths up front rather than stringing the same number of deaths out over many months or years. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has said, “Any country that believes it can keep it out will most likely be proven wrong at some stage.” Tegnell maintains that Sweden is equipped to handle COVID-19 patients in their hospitals and that focus should be on treatment capacity and better measures for protecting vulnerable individuals in nursing-home care. One of the changes made in Sweden was to increase hospital intensive care unit workers’ pay to more than twice their regular salary. 

Although the comparatively high death toll does not inspire confidence in their planning, the coronavirus pandemic did not take Sweden by surprise. The country has a pandemic plan that outlines who will make decisions and define strategy for addressing a national emergency. The Public Health Agency of Sweden has the authority to assemble a National Pandemic Group to coordinate activities between various entities, including the Civil Contingencies and Medical Products agencies, as well as the National Board of Health and Welfare and the Work Environment Authority. 

Sweden has been viewed as one the countries best prepared to face a pandemic. In many matters, Denmark, Finland, and Norway seem to follow the lead of Sweden. But in the case of COVID-19, they have all chosen to look to other role models. So far at least, it seems they made the better choices. We will have to check back in a few months to see if that assessment was justified.

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This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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John Erik Stacy

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., and has now returned there after over 30 years divided between Oslo and Seattle. He studied Biology at the University of Oslo and worked there several years leading the DNA laboratory for Systematics and Ecology. He also worked as a senior scientist and team leader for a biotech startup at the Oslo Research Park, where he developed automated systems in antibody discovery. He continues to hold investments and consult for companies at the Research Park and travels frequently to Oslo.