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Post Sweden's Coronavirus Policies ARE Different
Created by John Eipper on 12/24/20 5:05 AM

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Sweden's Coronavirus Policies ARE Different (Francisco Ramirez, USA, 12/24/20 5:05 am)

For an alternative perspective to Cameron Sawyer's (December 23rd) on Sweden and its response to Covid, please read this study by Staffan Andersson and Nicholas Aylott:


The paper does not make causal claims linking different strategies to different outcomes. But it does contend that Sweden differed from its neighbors and that this was not a trivial difference.

As the Director of the Scandinavian Consortium for Organization Research at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, I am in constant communication with Scandinavian scholars. Three cohorts of Visiting Scholars have had to defer their visits to Stanford. This coming Winter will bring our third consecutive semester of weekly seminars via Zoom. Thus, not surprisingly, Covid is in our minds.

Below is a graphic to keep in mind:


JE comments:  According to the graph immediately above (click on "expand statistic"), Sweden, with twice the population of Denmark, has 2 and 1/2 times more Covid cases.  This is a meaningful difference, but not an earth-shattering one.  I'd like to hear more of Cameron Sawyer's views on the Libertarian "approach" or ideal on how to deal with a public-health catastrophe.  Coercion is not in the Libertarian playbook, but how do you balance the public good with individual freedoms?

Earlier today, A. J. Cave cited a Bloomberg assertion that authoritarian countries have a better track record with Covid than the liberal democracies.  I cannot readily grasp a correlation from the chart above--although five of the six most-affected nations (excluding Russia) are democracies.  Where's China, I wonder?  I would wager my 401k that the Chinese are underreporting their cases.  Eighty-six thousand?  Bah.

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  • Scandinavia's Covid Policies, Revisited (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 12/26/20 3:54 AM)

    The article cited by Francisco Ramírez (https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/9/12/232/htm ) is very interesting, but does not indeed show that Sweden's pandemic strategy is different from that in the other Nordic countries. This is merely assumed to be true without analysis.

    This article is not about the measures themselves, but about the sociology of public policy--about the administrative and sociological reasons of why this should be so. And these arguments are somewhat valid, concerning differences between Sweden and Non-Nordic Europe, but not as to Sweden and the other Nordic countries. This is a fact inconvenient to the thesis--which is that the outcome in Sweden is fairly average for Europe but significantly worse than the other Nordic countries.

    The facts are rather not what the authors, like so many others, merely assume, without information. The facts are like what I described in my previous WAIS post on the subject. People focus on the fact that Sweden's strategy is different from that of the rest of Europe. It is. But it is not that different from the other Nordic countries. That is merely assumed, and this assumption is incorrect. It would be easy to make this assumption, since the outcome in Sweden has been much worse than in the other Nordic countries. But beware of confirmation bias. The outcome was different, so one would expect to find an explanation in different measures. But It is not actually true that the approach or the measures are significantly different. There are many different factors which influence outcomes, besides the government response, some of them random.

    Much is made in Francisco's article of the voluntary nature of most of the pandemic measures in Sweden, whereas other countries supposedly implemented mostly mandatory measures. But as I wrote, the pandemic approach in all of the Nordic countries has been overwhelmingly based on voluntary measures. Even the quarantine in Finland, for people crossing the Finnish borders from highly infected countries, is an honor-system quarantine.  It is explicitly recommended. Just like in Sweden, and different from Non-Nordic Europe where it is a punishable offense to break quarantine. No Nordic country at any point ever imposed stay-at-home orders, any mandatory restriction of movements, closed workplaces, closed construction sites, or did any mass closing of shops and businesses. The social distancing measures in all of the Nordic countries were based on extensive recommendations backed up with huge campaigns of public information and education. These are the facts, and I know not just from reading about them--I have spent the whole pandemic in the Nordic region; I was in Denmark during most of the spring and early summer and mostly Finland and Sweden since then.

    Much is made in the article about the institutional approach to the pandemic--the striking lack of involvement of politics in the management of the pandemic in Sweden. Again, this is not unique to Sweden.  This is the same technocratic approach which is a hallmark of all Nordic societies, where public agencies have a certain degree of formal and legal independence from the political branches, which as I wrote, is somewhat anti-democratic, but that's the way they do everything, and not just health. The article made much of Tegnell's daily press conferences --but it was the same with Salminen in Finland and in the other Nordic countries.  The pandemic was explicitly and visibly managed by scientists everywhere in the region; the politicians kept their hands off it. In fact there was even a scandal in Denmark when primary schools were briefly closed by the government, overruling the decision of the public health agency not to close them. All the Nordic countries closed schools briefly; in Sweden and Norway they never closed the primary schools. Closing primary schools was considered to be a mistake (and this is now the view all over Europe); and the Danish PM was criticized for overruling the health authorities and suppressing information about the initial decision of the health authorities--putting politics above science.

    As to the "libertarian approach" to the pandemic in the Nordic countries--this is of a piece with the particular style of the, let us say, communitarian-libertarian society of the Nordic countries, which seems paradoxical to Americans, it seems like a combination of irreconcilable opposites. But the Nordic countries do in fact combine a high degree of social solidarity, including comprehensive welfare states (in Finland they even experimented with a Basic Minimum Income), with, at the same time, a very high degree of personal freedom. This high degree of personal freedom includes some freedoms which we do not have, including for example freedom of movement which cannot be abrogated by the state in peacetime, which was one of the reasons why there were no lockdowns in any of the Nordic countries. I was in a business meeting in Helsinki recently when an English person asked a Finnish person why there was no lockdown, when everyone was so worried about the second wave, and the reaction of the Finnish person was visceral--"Why they can't do that! Maybe only if there is a war!" As if the very idea was shocking.

    Here's an illustration of "lockdown," Nordic-style:

    JE comments:  This may be the gentlest Covid leaflet I've seen anywhere.  Note the urgency of protecting not only loved ones, but "other people," too.  A perfect example of the Nordic communitarian spirit.

    Cameron, when time permits, could you send some reflections on Finland's experiment with the Basic Minimum Income?  Over here BMI means Body Mass Index--perhaps because we exceptional Americans are fatter but less concerned about our neediest neighbors.

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    • Finland's Experiment with Basic Minimum Income (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 12/27/20 4:31 AM)
      JE described the leaflet "Recommendations for Passengers Arriving in Finland" thus:

      "This may be the gentlest Covid leaflet I've seen anywhere. Note the urgency of protecting not only loved ones, but ‘other people,' too. A perfect example of the Nordic communitarian spirit...When time permits, could you send some reflections on Finland's experiment with the Basic Minimum Income?"

      Note also how the leaflet, strikingly, assumes that people take compliance with the voluntary measures very seriously. For example, it explains exactly what you need to do in order to end the quarantine early. That is perhaps the most striking difference to what we might see in other countries. In the US, if the quarantine would be voluntary, then no one would care what steps you would have to go through, to be freed of the "recommendation." We would presume that a person would simply leave off doing it, in case of need.

      And so we see that in the Nordic countries, the effect of the voluntary measures has been similar to the effect of legally mandatory measures in other countries. This gives the lie to the idea of some right-wing people in the US that Sweden just "did nothing"--in fact, social distancing took place at more or less than same extent as in locked-down countries, with especially striking effects on use of public transport (down more than 90% in Stockholm during some weeks in the spring) and internal travel.

      What concerns Finland's Basic Minimum Income, the results of the experiment are inconclusive. Explained better here, than I could: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/the-results-finlands-universal-basic-income-experiment-are-in-is-it-working/ .

      The Basic Minimum Income is another example of the, to us, paradoxical Nordic combination of libertarianism and communitarianism. This is similar to the proposals of some conservative theorists of the Reagan era--that to support poor people, it is much better to give them money with no strings attached, than to create perverse incentives by giving them money only on the condition they are not working. I agree with this, by the way. Another example of harmful perverse incentives was the way AFDC (remember that?) worked--giving financial support only to single mothers of small children, creating an incentive for the fathers to disappear, which had disastrous effects on the culture in some parts of US society in the 1960s and '70s.

      The experiment in Finland was attempting to show that if the support was not conditioned on the people not working, that they would find work more often. It did not demonstrate this, but I still think it's a good idea. I don't think this small experiment actually proved that it doesn't work, either--merely failed to demonstrate clearly so far. And note that people receiving this kind of assistance did show clear improvement of health and well-being.

      The Nordic countries are a century ahead of us, in designing the welfare state in a way that it does not manipulate people, that it preserves as much individual freedom and choice as possible. Nordic society is surprisingly congenial to the instincts and values of people who put a high value on individual freedom, individual choice, and entrepreneurship. The Nordic system has almost nothing to do with what Bernie Sanders, who mentions it so often, thinks it means. I have written before in these pages:  Even the tax system is congenial to conservative-libertarian people.  It is far less progressive than ours is, and it pays back to everyone richly, for what you put into it, which puts the rates into a completely different perspective. The system does not in any way punish anyone for being wealthy. There are no wealth or inheritance taxes. Corporate tax rates are about half of ours, even after the Trump reform. 20% in Finland.

      JE comments:  Finland's two-year experiment with Basic Minimum Income provided €560 monthly.  The surprising, "experimenty" part was that a control group apparently received nothing.  Don't know how they chose between the Gets and the Get-Nots.  Perhaps this is the perfect example of Nordic "exceptionalism"--that the control group quietly accepted being poorer and more stressed in the interest of social research.

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