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22 December 2020

What have Norway, Finland and Denmark got right on Covid-19?

Interventionist approaches to the virus in the Nordic countries helped them avoid Sweden’s spiralling death rate.  

By Michael Barrett

International attention on Scandinavia during the Covid-19 pandemic has primarily focused on Sweden’s management of the virus, with lockdown-sceptics applauding its decision to leave individuals to make their own decisions about social distancing. Unlike France, Germany, the UK and Italy, the country did not close restaurants, bars, shops or gyms. Schools for pupils aged under 16 remained open, mask-wearing was not mandated, and public gatherings of fewer than 50 people were permitted.

Yet in recent weeks, Sweden has suffered spiralling infection rates, suggesting the more sober responses of its three Nordic neighbours may provide more useful lessons to the wider world. At the time of writing, the Covid-19 death toll was 405 in Norway, 506 in Finland and around 1,000 in Denmark. Even after relative population sizes are taken into consideration, these figures make Sweden’s current death toll of almost 8,000 appear catastrophic, as well as tragic.

Sweden’s coronavirus death toll far exceeds that of its neighbours
Cumulative Covid-19 deaths per million people in Nordic countries

The King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, last week said the country had “failed” in its efforts to protect society from the pandemic. These comments were later described by the royal court as an expression of “empathy for those affected”, rather than a reprimand aimed at the authorities. Nevertheless, just a few days later, Stockholm introduced a series of new measures, including limiting public gatherings to eight people, closing gyms, libraries and swimming pools, and recommending the use of face masks on crowded public transport.

From the outset, the other three Nordic countries adopted a more interventionist approach. Each nation closed its borders in the early weeks of March and announced national measures to curb the virus. These restrictions had several common features: the closure of schools and universities, the curtailment of large-scale events and the closure of cultural and leisure facilities. In Norway, the prime minister Erna Solberg called her country’s response “the strongest and most interventionist measures we have ever had in peacetime”, and a quarantine requirement was placed on anyone arriving from outside the Nordic region. In Finland, meanwhile, an emergency act obligated people over the age of 70 to practise social distancing and limit contact, effectively legally requiring them to isolate.

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By 19 March, all three countries had closed their borders and entered lockdown. In some respects, the lockdowns were less severe than in other European countries, with no restriction, for example, on how many times a day people could leave their homes for exercise.

The number of daily fatalities and hospitalised patients plateaued and then began to subside within weeks. The Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen announced a “gradual, quiet and controlled opening of our society again on the other side of Easter” as early as 30 March, including a careful reopening of schools, which began on 15 April (the earliest anywhere in Europe). 

The Norwegian health minister Bent Høie told reporters the outbreak was “under control” on 6 April, and also announced a gradual reopening, starting with the return of children to nurseries. By the end of the month, Finland, too, said it would ease restrictions, beginning with schools, which returned on 14 May.

[See also: How Sweden is being forced to abandon its failing Covid-19 strategy]

These spring re-openings didn’t prevent case numbers falling and social distancing guidelines remained in place throughout the summer. As schools, hairdressers and sports clubs returned, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told Danish media on 26 April that Denmark was “now starting to follow the Swedish path by… pursuing a gentler model”. But this was at a fraction of the cost in lives.

By the time the second wave of Covid-19 came in the autumn, the countries were able to conduct testing at high volumes and keep track of local outbreaks. Face mask requirements or recommendations, resisted in the spring, began in August (Denmark, Norway) and September (Finland) as authorities sought to stem the resurgent virus without resorting to lockdowns. Re-opening schedules were scrapped and the easing of assembly restrictions reversed.

In recent weeks, Denmark’s path has diverged from that of its neighbours. Its upward curve of daily infections, corrected for population size, is, at the time of writing, steeper than all but one other western European country: Sweden. On 16 December, Copenhagen announced a second lockdown, one it had been hoping to avoid, which will come into full force on 25 December. Experts in Denmark have argued that, this time, the country waited until case numbers were too high before imposing tighter restrictions. 

Norway has pursued a policy of strict local measures – particularly in the capital Oslo – alongside national rules and an adherence to entry quarantine, and has avoided the escalation of cases seen in Denmark.

Finland cancelled indoor leisure activities in the Helsinki region at the end of November. It has recently placed serving restrictions on bars and restaurants, measures taken a few weeks earlier by Norway and Denmark. Like Norway, Finland has seen an increase in cases but so far this spread remains contained.

[See also: Why 2021’s Covid-19 recovery risks excluding developing countries]

It seems clear there are some characteristics shared by the Norwegian, Finnish and Danish responses to Covid-19 which were lacking in the Swedish case. These include early decisions to lock down, controlled re-openings and, during the autumn wave, the gradual reversal of these re-openings alongside the use of face masks and the closure of social spaces. 

The story of the second wave is incomplete for the Nordic countries, but it appears so far to be mirroring the first: these comparable countries have adopted mostly pragmatic, proactive approaches and, when compared with Sweden, they have saved more lives.

To echo Tegnell’s words from the summer, the decision to adopt more restrictions and recommendations is a sign that Sweden is now beginning to follow the path its neighbours have trodden for months.

Michael Barrett is the editor of the Danish and Norwegian editions of The Local

[See also: What Denmark’s mink cull reveals about the dangers of fur farming]