Sweden, one of the few countries around the world that has not imposed a full lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, relying instead on providing information to its citizens and appealing to their sense of personal responsibility rather than restricting their movements.
In devising their response, the Swedish government’s scientific advisers seem to have favoured the concept of herd immunity – limiting the continued spread of a virus by ensuring the vast majority of a population cannot contract the disease either from their immunity because they been exposed to and recovered from the infection, or from vaccination..
Here on the other side of the North Sea, we adopted the stay home, protect the NHS and save lives’ approach, which necessitated the shutting down great swathes of our economy.
With deaths per capita in Sweden now more than four-times that of any of its neighbours the country has claimed the unwanted title of having the world's highest death rate from the coronavirus, a title which was briefly held by the UK in late May.
So did they get it wrong? Did we??
It’s difficult to say as one thing is for sure, COVID-19 didn’t come with a handbook. What we do know is that the pandemic has not yet peaked. This coronavirus could become a long-term or even permanent feature in our lives, potentially a seasonal virus such as flu which we develop strategies to co-exist with rather than locking ourselves away and our country down.
The various approaches that different countries have taken to combat COVID-19 highlights for me just how little we currently understand about this disease
At the heart of the problem, there really is no firm science here. If there was, every country could more easily implement ‘standard’ measures to combat COVID-19, based on facts. This is a disease we have never seen before though and so governments’ can only act on their own scientific advisors well informed predictions of what measures should make a difference (based on what we know about other diseases for example).
More rather than less caution is obviously good when any new infectious agent such as SARS-CoV-2 disease appears, but we ‘scientists’ can appreciate that for the public, it is confusing and frustrating when the basis – data or even a lack thereof - on which policies are made is not explained, leaving people wondering why measures are implemented in the first place, why they change and why different measures are in place in different countries.
An example is he issue of social distancing. Two metres or one metre? Inside or outside? No one actually knows what distance is critical for preventing transmission of SARs-CoV-2 as we’ve never dealt with this virus before. The same goes for the length of quarantine, shielding etc. This virus and how it behaves is totally new, so we’re actually generating the data and much needed facts as the pandemic goes on. The public should have confidence in any changes to guidelines and measures that happen as a result of this but again, any changes have to be properly explained or there’s the danger of mistrust and a perception of, ‘you just got it wrong initially so why even believe it now’.
It also hasn’t helped that there is also a very understandable public misperception of who the ‘scientists’ are and what they know. Those advising the government (the epidemiologists, infectious diseases specialists etc) need to be open - and I’m sure they are and want to be - about how little we understand about this disease. We’re gathering data as we go so we must expect guidance and advice to potentially change. There are also the scientists playing a very different role in this pandemic, those developing tests, therapies and vaccines for COVID-19. We are all the good guys in this.
So here’s what you need to know, direct from the scientific community working at the coalface: We are working hard on ways to treat this so there is less risk to you from contracting the virus. Treatments will be important as there is no guarantee of a vaccine being developed anytime soon. Sensible and realistic modifications to ‘normal’ daily life can protect you and others. Unless you are a high risk individual because of other health issues and need to shield, adapting to a new ‘normal’ way of living may be just as effective as protecting you as staying shut away altogether. This is why the ‘release’ plan we are now entering is important as it makes clear that we are starting to return to a new ‘normality’, a critical message for the public to hear and realise.