NYT Has Trouble Talking Seriously About the Swedish Approach

May 15, 2020

Opinion columns are always given more leeway than news articles, but it would be reasonable to expect that an opinion column in a major newspaper have some connection to reality. That does not appear to be the case with this one that tells us “I live in Sweden. I’m not panicking.”

The piece is a defense of Sweden’s decision to not have a shutdown period in which most businesses are closed and people are restricted from traveling for non-essential purposes. This has resulted in far higher infection rates in Sweden and most importantly far higher death rates. 

The only acknowledgment of this failure is when it tells readers:

“Sweden’s approach differs even from that of our Scandinavian neighbors, where society swiftly closed and many fewer deaths have been reported. Critics argue that our government and the Public Health Agency acted too late and that the strategy has failed, citing the number of dead in relation to the population of just over 10 million.”

It then continues:

“Officials counter that though many hospitals are under unprecedented stress, the health care system, which is tax-funded and heavily subsidized, still has capacity to care for the sick.

“The vast majority of those who have died in Sweden were over the age of 70. Many of them were people living within the elder-care system, even though visits to nursing homes have been banned. Friends whose loved ones have succumbed to the virus are understandably inconsolable.”

First, the elderly have been disproportionately victims of the virus everywhere, so it is not clear that this story is different in Sweden than elsewhere. But the more important point is that we are not talking about small differences in mortality rates, the differences are huge. As of today, Sweden has a death rate of 350 per million. Denmark’s rate is less than 30 percent as high at 93 per million. Finland’s rate is a bit more than one-seventh of Sweden’s at 52 per million and Norway’s rate is less than 15 percent of Sweden’s at 42 per million.

In other words, we are not talking about marginal differences, Sweden is seeing far more deaths relative to the size of its population than its neighbors because of the route it has taken in dealing with the virus. It would be reasonable to expect a piece defending this route to confront this point clearly rather than hiding the issue from readers who mostly will not know the actual numbers.

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