Sweden, Which Didn't Lock Down, Has Worst Death Toll Since 1869 in First Half of 2020

Sweden, which has gained attention for not locking down to tackle the coronavirus, has recorded its highest death toll for the first six months of a year since 1869.

Between January and June, 51,405 people died from a population of 10.3 million, the Statistics Office announced on Wednesday. That is the highest toll for the first six months of a year in over a century and a half, when 55,431 people died amid a famine. At that time, the population was around 4.1 million.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths were 10 percent higher than the average of the past five years, and 40 percent higher in April.

Over half a year since the epidemic started, Sweden has recorded over 85,000 coronavirus cases of the 22.4 million global total, as well as 5,802 deaths of over 788,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The case fatality rate in Sweden, or the number of people diagnosed who go on to die, is 6.8 percent, compared with 2.6 percent in Norway, and 3.8 percent in Denmark.

The announcement came the day that doctors in Sweden reported the first case of a newborn baby infected with the virus in the country, healthcare watchdog Dagens Medicin reported. Doctors aren't certain, but believe the child may have caught the virus in the womb.

Sweden has become regarded as an outlier in its approach to the pandemic. Nodding to the concept of folkvett, or the common sense of the people as a collective, officials provided citizens with guidance on how to behave. While shops, restaurants, and gyms stayed open, schools and universities closed to over-16s, and large-scale gatherings of more than 50 people were banned. Over-70s and those with COVID-19 symptoms were told to self-isolate.

It has also avoided advising residents to wear masks. On its website, the Public Health Agency of Sweden states mask-wearing is currently not recommended "since the scientific evidence around the effectiveness of face masks in combatting the spread of infection is unclear."

In neighboring Norway, residents are advised to wear face masks on public transport during rush hour, while they will be compulsory on public transport in Denmark from Saturday. Face coverings are required by law in certain locations in England, including on public transport and in shops and supermarkets.

On Wednesday, Anders Tegnell, Sweden's state epidemiologist, told the Financial Times: "It is very dangerous to believe face masks would change the game when it comes to COVID-19."

He said: "However, there may be situations where face masks can be useful despite the uncertain state of knowledge about the effects."

Tegnell said: "Face masks can be a complement to other things when other things are safely in place. But to start with having face masks and then think you can crowd your buses or your shopping malls—that's definitely a mistake." He pointed to rising infection rates in Spain and Belgium, where masked are widely used.

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, U.K., told Newsweek: "Sadly this [the death toll in the first half of the year] is not surprising. For several decades Sweden has stood out as an exemplar of effective public health policies in many areas, so many of us have watched with surprise at how it has mishandled the COVID pandemic.

"It is now very clear that early assumptions about the nature of this disease were mistaken. That is understandable as we were all learning. What is most worrying is a seeming inability to learn from these mistakes. However, we should recall that Sweden was held up as an example by many elsewhere who opposed lockdowns. They too should admit they were wrong."

This article has been updated with comment from professor Martin McKee.

covid19, coronavirus, sweden, getty
A woman wears a face mask as she waits at a bus stop beside a sign asking people to keep their distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic on June 26, 2020 in Stockholm, Sweden. STINA STJERNKVIST/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images