Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist admitted last Tuesday that “we see no signs of immunity in the population that are slowing down the infection right now.” Closer to home, Boris Johnson gave up on notions of ‘herd immunity’ by April because of widespread criticism of being unethical, dangerous to health system capacities, and a risk that the static ‘herd immunity’ strategy wouldn’t work against a mutating virus.
With grandstanding the order of the day for politicians, news outlets and scientists alike; it remains doubtful whether the most brilliant people oversee the strategy. The Far Eastern nations Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all avoided lock-downs and their people have been spared death and illness.
The media and armchair warriors deny there is any debate to have. Any discussion of opening economies has been met with accusations of mass murder.
The Swedish model has received a lot of criticism, primarily for risking its vulnerable populations; but secondly because it was selfish on the global level. Nation states like Sweden operating in isolation, refusing to shutdown their economic activity, risked ruining other countries’ stricter, more destructive, dystopian efforts.
The UK government did not lockdown until the end of March. Our Southern European neighbours, who had been under harsh quarantine for 4 weeks already were aghast. How could zee English be so selfish? When really our domestic policy was based on a vague notion of timing the lockdown to prevent “isolation fatigue”. A phenomenon only unruly English people suffered from. It was feared people would stop following the rules and the lockdowns would become ineffective.
Social distancing works, but only if you do it. China’s authoritarian regime has absolute compliance or else. It can and did force over a billion to stay home, disinfect everything and forced its people to put the collective good above their own wants and desires – for all its infringement on personal liberties.
Swedish authorities thought they would reach herd immunity by April. This became May and that became August. Tests in May showed 20% had been infected in Stockholm and under 10% elsewhere. Sweden’s policy was formulated around a basic error in accurately gauging the dynamics of spread, leading to overestimating cases, and thereby the success of their herd immunity approach. Policymakers underestimated their citizens partaking in prophylactic behaviour (voluntary reduction in social contact).
Will the Vaccine Work?
Comparing Covid-19 with seasonal flu, the influenza virus has multiple strains and mutates rapidly. This is why we need a different flu vaccination every year to deal with the most prevalent strains. Fortunately, SARS-Cov-2 does not appear to be mutating to become Flu 2.0.
Someone infected with measles can spread it to 18 others. This means about 95% of people need to be infected for us to achieve the threshold for herd immunity (virus decreasing in prevalence over time). Any given Covid-19 contagious person will infect 3 other people on average, meaning a lower threshold of 66% will achieve the same result of reducing the virus’ hold in the community.
Sweden’s policymakers thought the transmission rate would be fixed once herd immunity brought it under control. They failed to account for increasing cases in the Winter months where Covid would see a resurgence like the seasonal flu. The virulence of Covid-19 remained constant, but neighbouring countries opened up from their lockdowns and Sweden, keeping everything open, became a top travel destination.
The narrative that Covid swept through Sweden and created widespread herd immunity is now upended. They are a more rule-adhering society that simply followed guidance better – cutting down public transport, not travelling and practicing adequate social distancing.
What really happened was Sweden remained open and warm weather and sunshine came along, reducing Covid and the low levels were assisted by other nations stuck in quarantine reducing virus migration.
Hindsight is 20:20, meaning we will not know what the best course of action was until later. But measured social distancing, mask-wearing and waiting for the vaccine seems like the most palatable option in more caring, freer Western societies until the vaccines roll out – for all its costs, hidden and revealed.