In March 2020, Sweden faced a vexing choice: Clamp down hard on COVID-19 or adopt a more laissez faire approach and allow the virus to continue its spread, come what may.
By now, we know the gist of what has become known as "The Swedish Experiment". The country opted to pursue herd immunity, or flockimmunitet, at a time when most of Europe was embracing a decidedly different approach. It was a gamble - one many claim has backfired.
Today, Sweden's COVID-19 death toll is fast approaching 20,000. Neighbouring Denmark and Norway - two countries that did introduce lockdown measures - have seen far fewer deaths, approximately 6000 and 3000 respectively.
So what led Sweden to take such a radically different course? And are grim statistics the most appropriate indicator of a state's success or failure in managing a pandemic?
Journalist Johan Anderberg answers these and many other questions in The Herd, an entertaining page-turner about Sweden's COVID-19 response. He also introduces us to the chief architects of the Swedish strategy. One of those architects was the retired epidemiologist Johan Giesecke.
In early January 2020, Giesecke logged onto ProMED, the online database where "pretty much anyone in the pathogen business" can register early indications of worrying contagions. The white-haired retiree noticed an entry about a new coronavirus out of China, but didn't think much of it. Within a month he'd be brought back to work by Anders Tegnell, his former protégé.
Giesecke and Tegnell thought about infectious diseases in much the same terms. As COVID-19 ripped through Northern Italy and New York, the pair remained opposed to interventions intended to stop the spread.
When Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London released a report in mid-March 2020 predicting 510,000 deaths in Britain, the Swedes took notice. Then they proceeded to debunk his data. Imperial College had been wrong before, wildly overestimating the mortality rates of mad cow disease, bird flu and swine flu. Besides, mortality rates weren't the only factors weighing on the Swedes.
Sweden's response was predicated on a choice, one Giesecke was increasingly willing to discuss the longer the pandemic ground on. If Sweden had to sacrifice its elderly to allow children to go to school and society to keep functioning, so be it.
Anderberg stops short of making a judgment one way or another about Sweden's approach, preferring to stick to the facts in The Herd, a book that reads like a cross between a good New Yorker piece and a political thriller.
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