When the Covid-19 outbreak first began, Sweden decided to take a more laissez-faire approach to handle the spread of the virus. The result was a hue and cry of pandemonic proportions. The Independent (Goddard, 2020) ran a series of articles recording that Sweden had its highest death toll in over a century, ending with a claim that Sweden was going to end up wholly decimated because of their response. The Guardian (Reuters, 2020), discussing how Sweden’s economy was going to crash and that the more draconian measures implemented by Finland and other Nordic neighbours were proving to be viable and would end the spread of the virus by July, followed suit. The fear that was promoted through toxic social media led to countries being closed for the first time in history. The reaction and response are made worse because society has become more risk-averse and untrusting (Neuberger, 2009).
In the ensuing months, for all the fear, it did not seem that Sweden suffered as badly as people had thought. Sweden was starting to believe that things would go back to normal before Christmas (Moody, 2020), and the light-handed laissez-faire approach that the government had taken was now delivering lower infection rates than the approach taken by its Nordic neighbours, many of which were seeing an upsurge in infections and hospitalisation rates (Waterfield, 2020). But most importantly, though the Swedish economy was weaker than it had been 12 months earlier, it remained buoyant and in a better condition than the economies of nearly every other European and Nordic nation. The question we need to ask is whether the economy is worth risking lives. Did Sweden play fast and loose, or were they taking a calculated risk, weighing up the alternative costs in concluding that doing nothing could be doing more? Cui bono?
The New York Post (Barone, 2020) responded writing that the lockdown might have been a colossal mistake. During the American War of Independence, George Washington fought the British whilst a smallpox epidemic raged (Becker, 2004; Lawler, 2020; Martin, 2003). Of course, at such a period in history, people were more used to epidemics and plagues. In the modern world, we live in an environment where many of us believe that we can control nature, that we can stop viruses from spreading and create vaccines in weeks. If you watch television, you could not come away with any other belief. In creating a coddled mindset, in believing that all risk needs to be mitigated, we have forgotten that a trade-off requires an increase in costs for every bit of saving. As we move risk away from one area, we increase it in another.
Unfortunately, there is no way to control nature entirely, or to remove and mitigate all risk. Each time we move funds away from the allocation and natural equilibrium occurring within a market and society, consequences arise. The lockdown has merely delayed and did not prevent infections. As the New York Post put it, as government minimises one risk, it will increase another. And here lies the concern that we need to address. In an attempt to save lives, how many did we take? How many more people will die from cancer treatments that they have not had, and how many impoverished nations will be plunged into famine and later disease and possibly war because of this lockdown?
More importantly, we need to ask what the long-term factors are. We haven’t even begun to see the impact of the lockdown. The economic costs of bankrupting millions of businesses and funding bailouts for others, while we have isolated our children and removed their opportunities to be educated and to build a future, will reverberate for decades. It was already being argued in March of last year (Miltimore, 2020), the cure could be worse than the disease. As we saw Sweden starting to return to normality and as the US and the UK are undergoing more lockdowns, and the destruction of a larger component of the economy, maybe we should rethink our strategy before the nanny state smothers the baby.
Barone, M. (2020, Sep 6). It’s now looking like the lockdowns may have been a huge mistake. New York Post. https://nypost.com/2020/09/06/its-now-looking-like-the-lockdowns-may-have-been-a-huge-mistake/
Becker, A. M. (2004). Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease During the American Revolutionary War. The Journal of Military History, 68(2), 381–430.
Goddard, E. (2020, Aug 21). Coronavirus: Sweden records highest death toll for 150 years. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/sweden-coronavirus-death-toll-record-covid-a9681436.html
Lawler, A. (2020, Apr 16). How a public health crisis nearly derailed the American Revolution. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/04/george-washington-beat-smallpox-epidemic-with-controversial-inoculations/
Martin, J. K. (2003). Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (review). Journal of Social History, 37(1), 268–270.
Miltimore, J. (2020, Mar 20). Panic Has Led To Government “Cures” That Are Worse Than The Disease, History Shows. Foundation for Economic Education. https://fee.org/articles/panic-has-led-to-government-cures-that-are-worse-than-the-disease-history-shows/
Moody, O. (2020, Sep 3). Sweden dreams of a normal Christmas. The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sweden-dreams-of-a-normal-christmas-08vz7bzmb
Neuberger, Baron. J. (2009). Unkind, risk averse and untrusting: if this is today’s society, can we change it?. Contemporary social evils (Joseph Rowntree Foundation), 115.
Reuters. (2020, Aug 19). Sweden records highest death tally in 150 years in first half of 2020. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/19/sweden-records-highest-death-tally-in-150-years-in-first-half-of-2020
Waterfield, B. (2020, Aug 24). Sweden claims fall in coronavirus infection rate is down to immunity. The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sweden-claims-fall-in-coronavirus-infection-rate-is-down-to-immunity-nnsm6v7mw
[Image: A symbolic representation of Lockdown; Sanu N, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, Wikimedia Commons]