One of the most widespread articles of recent months comes from the world’s most respected newspaper and is about Sweden. Much of the article is, however, distorted – to Sweden’s detriment.
Here is a review of the article’s most serious misunderstandings and inaccuracies.
This isn’t an easy text to write objectively; there’s an inherent contradiction in being Swedish and wanting to defend Sweden, but the article in the New York Times has such a significant impact on the world’s view of Sweden that there should at least be some nuance. The story has received almost 400,000 Facebook reactions, and despite repeated errors and shortcomings, nothing in the article has been corrected.
Here is a review of the article’s most serious misunderstandings and factual errors.
Claim: The Swedish government chose to conduct an ”open-air experiment” to save the economy.
False. And since this is the overarching premise of the article, it being incorrect is particularly serious: the economy has never been a beacon for Sweden’s choice of strategy. As early as mid-March, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell explained that “we have always worked very hard to ensure that we have the highest possible level of public health in Sweden. The economy comes second”. Neither the Swedish Government nor Parliament has given a divergent reason for choosing a strategy. The Swedish authorities have repeatedly stated that the reason for implementing a less restrictive strategy is its viability over a prolonged period. (update: The image above is from the printed newspaper, to show this was indeed the overarching premise of the article. If not intended by author, still understood so, even by the newspaper editors.)
Claim: Sweden is hit harder by Covid-19 than the United States
It is true that Sweden, per capita, has had more deaths than the United States (the figure stands at 30 per cent higher, not 40 per cent as the article suggests), but that compares with a US that experienced its corona development later than Sweden. Above all, it compares with a US that’s now seeing an upward trend with regard to deaths. While Sweden has aimed towards creating a sustainable strategy, acceptable to citizens over an extended period of time, the United States has locked down, opened up, and is having trouble getting acceptance on trying to lock down again. In addition, Sweden counts cases of deaths with Covid-19, not only deaths due to the virus. If you have been infected with Covid-19 within 30 days of your death, you are included in the statistics, regardless of the cause of death. Sweden also cross-references the social security numbers of all cases to achieve more trustworthy statistics. In the US, there have been early reports of the death toll being up to 50 percent more than has been reported, and that the country has had huge problems differentiating diagnoses of those who died with or from Covid-19. In addition, Sweden is now back to normal levels of mortality.
Claim: More people died in Sweden compared to other Nordic countries.
True – but Sweden is big. If you instead compare similarly populated regions, the result will be different. One can, for example, compare Själland in Denmark (where Copenhagen is located) with Skåne in Sweden. There’s only a slim stretch of sea between the two regions, but despite that, Skåne has fewer deaths in both absolute and relative numbers. This is the trend in several countries, which is why it is often better to compare regions rather than countries.
Claim: The daily lives of Swedes have continued largely unhindered
It might be easy to believe for those who see Sweden from the outside, but for those of us in Sweden during the pandemic, daily life is largely different. City centers and restaurants have emptied, hundreds of thousands have worked from home and met neither the elderly, risk groups nor even friends. Many have lost their jobs due to disappearing infrastructure, with even more being furloughed. Almost all of this was achieved without new legislation, as the situation was not judged to require it. Legislators limited the number of people allowed to gather (a maximum of 50), and restaurants and other public institutions were given rules of conduct for their activities. Here, it’s important to understand that Sweden has a different political tradition than many other countries – including our neighbors – of having an administrative model where politicians both listen to and trust responsible authorities. While other countries made political decisions, the Swedish Public Health Agency’s recommendations in Sweden became indicative. It stated early on that every decision would have its foundation in science, which meant Sweden stuck to the idea of not shutting down society entirely, and instead introduced a number of recommendations. The recommendations, in turn, led to large numbers of companies closing down, furloughing staff or asking employees to work from home. City centers and destinations were emptied. Self-imposed isolation began in Sweden, where there’s been very little ”business as usual”.
Claim: Denmark and Sweden’s consumption decreased by about the same – despite Denmark being shut down.
The statement is based on credit card data from Danske Bank and a report written about it. But Danske Bank is not nearly as big in Sweden as it is in Denmark. Nowhere is this mentioned by New York Times. If you look at other reports, one from swedish bank SEB, the picture is completely different. In their report Sweden was the bigger spender, relative to the neighboring countries. Of course, SEB’s report can also be criticized in the same way as Danske Bank. And Nordea in Finland has other data that paints another picture. All this makes it clear how difficult it is to use this data to give a correct view.
These are some of the statements in the article that make it both misleading and wrong. And not corrected by the New York Times.
And strangely enough, the reporter himself seems to shrug his shoulders at it. Maybe he had already decided where the text would land, before he wrote it? Because on April 17, he wrote a tweet in which he called Sweden’s strategy a ”crackpot strategy”.
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Update: New York Times reporter has given his response, you can read it here.
Update2: The day before this story was published, the reporter wrote this: