Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Sweden and COVID

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A recent article on UNZ is very interesting both with an eye on the situation in my native Sweden and with regard to issues like journalism and public policy.

Broadly speaking, the article amounts to Sweden (which has imposed far less restrictions than most other countries) having done much better economically done others and having paid at most a small or tolerable price in terms of health effects, yet also being torn down by international media.

A few meta-issues:

  1. Looking through the article and the comments, it is clear that a great uncertainty exists on what the true situation is.* The truth might well be out there, but how do we outsiders get at the truth? One way is to look into varying sources and to give dissenting voices a hearing, but that takes a lot of time and doing so on all important issues would be more than full-time job. Here there is a niche where journalists could truly provide “value added”: have a strong critical thinker go through various sources, debates, and whatnot, and have him summarize the overall sets of opinions and arguments, determine the currently dominating opinion, and give his own take on plausibility and whatnot as an extra protection. What journalists actually do is pretty much the opposite … Too often, they grab a single source, often a government agency, another media outlet, or a professor of the social “sciences”, and blindly trumpet that one viewpoint to the world. Indeed, in many cases, they deliberate try to squash dissenting opinions to prevent the readers from forming their own opinions, lest they come to a different conclusion or perception than the journalists want to push.**

    *And I am not necessarily saying that the data and interpretation in that article are the superior ones. My impressions go in the same direction, but my leg-work is not even remotely up-to-date.

    **See e.g. a recent text on NYT.

    This problem (and this wasted opportunity) is by no means restricted to epidemics. Consider e.g. the current heavily distorted U.S. reporting on alleged racism, including an often highly incomplete picture of the George-Floyd case.

  2. Chances are that both governments and journalists suffer from a can’t-retreat-now effect: even admitting the possibility that Sweden had made a better choice could lead to a horrifying loss of reputation and credibility. For instance, what politician wants to be known as the “guy who tanked the economy for no reason” or “the guy who cost me my job for no reason”. (Vice versa, I strongly suspect that an early fear in the other direction increased the panic-making: no politician wants to be known as “the guy who let millions die because he did not follow the example of everyone else”.)
  3. Sweden’s policy would have been a good thing, even had it backfired: In order to handle situations like this one, we need information and we need to be able to compare strategies. When more-or-less everyone uses a tight lock-down strategy, how are we supposed to get this information and how are we to compare strategies? (Even aside from complications like inconsistent data gathering, testing, attribution of death, whatnot, between countries.) As is, we do not actually know that more than non-trivial counter-measures were needed, because there is no true benchmark to tell us whether an no-restrictions policy would have led to the equivalent of four-flu-seasons-in-one or the Spanish Flu.* Looking e.g. at Germany (alone), there might not be enough data to allow anything but a second major shut-down, should a second wave of even specifically COVID occur—the room to draw important lessons has simply been too small.**

    *I still suspect the former. Also remember e.g. the SARS and swine-flu scares that eventually had a trivial impact, far less than COVID, even without massive lock-downs.

    **And I suspect that the one lesson (or “lesson”?) will be an immediate introduction of face masks, as opposed to the delayed one that took place this time.

    Imagine instead that there had been an international agreement that different countries* should apply different levels of restrictions. Take something as trivial as varying where masks are mandatory, how large gatherings are allowed, or whether old people should be isolated. When the next epidemic comes, we would have a better idea of what counter-measures bring what benefit or damage* to health and what damage to e.g. the economy. Indeed, as even this wave has hit the world at a stagger, controlled experiments with the first countries hit could have given some help to countries hit later.

    *Or, in e.g. Germany or the U.S., different states of the federation.

    **To this, remember that e.g. involuntary isolation can have negative health effects of its own, as can unemployment caused by the counter-measures, etc. It is not a given, in advance, that even the net health effect will be positive. In my own case, it has almost certainly been negative through weight-gain and damage caused by an idiot neighbor (cf. e.g. portions of an older text, which also address the general issue in a little more detail).

    Sweden’s heretic road gives us at least some chance of comparison.

Excursion on “we can’t risk it”:
Looking at the last item, some might argue that we simply cannot take the risk and that it would be a callous risking of human lives. With this I would disagree on several counts, including that the same argument would apply in a great many other cases and result in a crippled society, that we could equally argue that the opposite would be a callous risking of the economic well-fare of the people, that neglecting to gather this information is a callous risking of future lives, and that policies can always be changed, should the situation turn out* to be unacceptable.

*One of my complaints with how the situation has been handled is that the gun was jumped—extremely far-going restrictions were applied before it was clear that the situation would actually turn out badly without restrictions. (Something that we still do not know …)

Excursion on my take on the core issues:
This few-restrictions policy is in line with my own recommendations (if in doubt because adults should themselves decide what small or moderate risks they do take) and the economic advantage is a near given. That the health effects are small* is in line with my expectation, but confirmation is good. The treatment by media is not unexpected, but I would have hoped for better.

*Compared to e.g. the overall death toll from all causes or total loss of life-years, not necessarily “raw” COVID death cases from comparable countries with a more restrictive policy. (Note that COVID still only provides a fraction of all deaths and that many of the dead were so old and sick that they lost only a small portion of their lives—unlike e.g. that middle-aged chain-smoker who died in lung cancer or that child who died in a car accident.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 26, 2020 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

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