Is Coronavirus dangerous? Check out the Swedish answer . . .


covid-4948866_1280.jpgThis is part of a series looking at the effect of Coronavirus on people with disability. 

There is, of course, only one answer to the question and the answer is ‘yes, it’s hugely dangerous and people are dying’.

Coronavirus, COVID-19, is a killer. So, however, are cars. The question we really want answered is, ‘will the virus kill me’?

The single most vital need we have as individuals is to remain alive. None of us, however, live alone and, together, we form communities. Societies’ needs – the needs of the group – will be different from those of a single person.

We saw this right at the beginning of the pandemic, particularly in the UK, when Boris Johnson began waving his arms furiously, nodding his head earnestly, and declaiming about something he called ‘herd immunity’ which seemed (at the time) like something worth aiming for. The idea was that some people would die from Coronavirus but basically, they were old and were probably going to die anyway so it would be better for society, as a whole, just to carry on regardless and pretend nothing was happening. That last sentence probably needs to be read quickly in order to make sense, because if you stop for a moment to think about what it means, you’ll realise that the politician who advocates this as a policy is placing themselves in the position of a Field Marshal fighting World War One. In other words, they’re asserting that the objective, their mission (to make money and keep society moving) is far more important than somebody’s life.

That didn’t go down well and even Boris J. pretty soon began backing away from this proposed solution. This does, however, give us an idea about how governments look at this issue, simply because at the beginning of the crisis the UK did seem as if it was prepared to put a price on people’s lives.

Put very crudely, this meant that if the cost of keeping some old people alive for another year or two was balanced against keeping the economy powering on, the British government was prepared to sacrifice the frail and weak.

Such stern resolution didn’t, however, survive the arrival of the virus on the shores of the UK. The government decided it had got its calculations wrong and, actually, it turned out that old lives were still valued after all. And the lockdowns began.

The Swedish government, however, hasn’t backed away from a similar approach. It’s introduced social distancing, but shops and primary schools have remained open and restaurants and bars are serving up sit-down meals to the clinking sound of beers being poured and drunk.

Nevertheless, by April 2021 the UK had witnessed 32 out of every 100,000 who caught the virus die. The Swedes, however, had lost 22 per 100,000 or a 12% death rate. This lower rate can, to a significant degree, be explained by the greater dispersion of people in the Nordic country, which has fewer people living in close quarters than the UK. It’s also relevant to compare the number of deaths in Sweden to those of its neighbours like Norway and Finland, where more significant restrictions were imposed. Norway’s fatality rate was just 3.4% of cases or four deaths per 100,000 people, while Finland’s was both slightly worse (4% of infections resulted in death) and slightly better (only three dead per 100,000).

The question the beancounters want answered, however, is what will the long-term effect of the lockdown be? Is it possible, in other words, that more people would have had their lives badly compromised by the lockdown than died from the virus?

It will still take another couple of years or so before we find out the result – but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an answer.

There have been significant protests and demonstrations in Sweden and a petition, signed by Nobel-prize winners and researchers, has been circulated urging the government to reverse its policy.

“Our country should not be an exception to the work to curb the pandemic. Creating herd immunity, in the same way that occurs during an influenza epidemic, has low scientific support.””

– Petition to Swedish government

The Swedish government hasn’t backed down but it has introduced new restrictions aimed at cutting off people in particularly vulnerable settings, such as elderly care facilities.

Older people’s homes have proved dangerous incubators of the virus, as have cruise ships, however, it’s important to note that the real danger of catching COVID-19 remains intimately correlated with exposure to a carrier of the virus.

That’s how Boris J. caught the disease that nearly killed him. It’s how young, strong foreign workers in Singapore have caught the virus – by living closely together with others. Some individuals, like those in older age groups, are more at risk of death once infected, but that doesn’t mean any particular cohort – aside from children and youths – are necessarily ‘immune’.



Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

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