Comparison to Sweden suggests COVID lockdowns did not prevent any COVID deaths at all
First, we would like to know how much our societal lockdown response to COVID has reduced COVID deaths. We ordered everyone to stay at home for 51 days in Minnesota and a comparable time in most states. We shut down restaurants, bars, health clubs, and numerous other non-essential businesses for about 3 months. The governor of Minnesota ordered all churches closed for about 3 months. We closed the schools and universities for most of a semester, and most schools and universities are still partially or fully closed to in-person instruction and apparently will remain so for all of this school year. We have eliminated handshakes and hugs. We are told to keep 6 feet from one another and wear masks in public even when more than 6 feet from others. That is a lot of sacrifice. How much did it help?
Ideally for a perfect scientific study we would want a comparison of an identical society that simply ignored COVID and then see how much of a difference in COVID deaths there is between the two societies. Of course that is not possible, but there are a few countries that did not employ lockdowns that we could use for comparison, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Iceland, and Sweden. The closest comparison in that group is Sweden. It is a Western country like the U.S., with a northern climate, like most of the U.S., and a democracy with a tradition of freedoms that resembles the U.S., and it is less isolated than Iceland and has a much larger population than Iceland, closer to that of the U.S.
Here is a table of our response to COVID compared to Sweden’s:
Sweden had almost no mandatory restrictions. They did not close schools and did not even allow parents to keep their children out of school. They briefly closed health clubs and universities, but soon reversed those restrictions.
Sweden did not even mandate mask wearing: they just recommended mask wearing and only recommended it if you were in an indoor space where you could not keep 3 feet from others. In the U.S., we have mandated mask wearing indoors and suggested keeping 6 feet, rather than 3 feet, from others even when wearing masks. Some localities have even mandated mask wearing outdoors! Sweden’s approach to masks is actually consistent with World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance.
Based on all that, you would assume Sweden has a higher death rate from COVID, right? No, they actually have a lower death rate per million population than the U.S.—671 in Sweden vs. 833 in the U.S. as of November 25, 2020. Sweden’s death rate per capita is also lower than that of most of the large countries in Europe, including the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, but higher than Germany. Now, some might say, “Yes, but Sweden is a rural country; that is why they have a low COVID death rate.” Unfortunately for that argument, Sweden is a more urbanized nation than the U.S.
In fairness, Sweden’s per capita COVID death rate is also quite a bit higher than its closest Scandinavian neighbors Norway, Finland, and Denmark. But it should also be noted that none of those countries used the full lockdown approach either. Norway closed schools and gyms in the spring, but reopened schools in April and has kept them open in the fall, and Norway never closed restaurants and bars if they could maintain 3 feet of social distance. Denmark and Finland took a similar approach. None of them ever issued stay at home orders for the entire population, as we did almost everywhere in the U.S.
It should also be noted that Sweden—which again has a lower COVID death rate than the U.S.—has the highest death rate of any nation that did not use the lockdown approach and never closed schools or businesses. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Iceland all have COVID death rates that are 10% or less that of the U.S. Sweden is the only one that is even close to the rate in the U.S. or other major Western countries that used the lockdown approach.
So from the comparison to Sweden and the other countries that did not use the lockdown approach of stay at home orders and closing schools, restaurants, and businesses to fight COVID, one would conclude that the lockdown approach did not prevent any COVID deaths at all and may have increased COVID deaths.