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Debunked: No, Sweden has not suppressed Covid-19 more than countries with stricter measures

Social media posts have claim Sweden has stopped the spread of the Covid-19 virus without restrictions on movement.

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A NUMBER OF social media posts have emerged in recent days questioning the decision of governments in countries, including Ireland, to introduce measures to restrict the movement of the public. 

Those posts cite the situation in Sweden, where the government has not moved towards so-called ‘lockdown’ measures, but instead has asked citizens to be responsible, stay at home where possible, and to adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

Schools, hairdressers, bars and restaurants have remained open during the pandemic and with a population of around 10.2 million people, it has so far recorded 12,540 cases, according to the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC).

Compare that with Ireland – with a population of five million people and where 13,271 cases are recorded – it might suggest Sweden has been successful in slowing the pace of the virus spreading more than European countries where stringent shutdown measures are in place. 

But making a like-for-like comparison between the figures of two countries is not as simple as comparing those figures reported by health authorities. Any comparisons between countries should come with health warnings as jurisdictions report data in different ways – for example, for many weeks, England did not include nursing home deaths in its tally, while Ireland has. 

The rate of testing compared to the population must be taken into account in any comparison.

Data shows that Sweden is testing much fewer people than Ireland – around 18,000+ tests per million people in Ireland vs. 7,300+ tests per million in Sweden. That translates to 90,646 tests in Ireland to Sweden’s 74,600.

This means many cases in Sweden could be going unaccounted for, while countries with a higher testing rate are painting a more accurate picture of the true number of cases in that country. 

Meanwhile, an examination of other countries across Europe, including its neighbouring Finland and others like Denmark, where strict social distancing and shutdown measures were introduced, also show fewer cases per 100,000 people than in Sweden.

As of 17 April, Finland has recorded 3,369 cases and 75 deaths, and it currently has a rate of 61 cases per 100,000 of the population. 

Denmark has recorded 6,879 cases with 321 deaths, and has recorded 118 cases per 100,000 of the population. 

Sweden, with 12,540 cases, has recorded 123 cases per 100,000 of the population and 1,333 deaths. 

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 12.02.49 Source: worldometers.info

Testing

As well as the number of confirmed cases being used as an indicator of the success of a particular strategy to suppress the virus, the number of tests being carried out is also a significant indicator as to why one country might have recorded fewer confirmed cases than others. 

Ireland’s 18,358 tests per million of the population is likely to show more cases in the community than countries like Sweden where 7,387 tests per million of the population are carried out.

As John Burn-Murdoch, senior data visualisation journalist at the Financial Times explained on TheJournal.ie’s The Explainer podcast, countries where extensive testing is being carried, such as in Ireland, paint a much more accurate picture of how the virus is spreading. 

Sweden, on the other hand is carrying out less than half the number of tests being carried out in Ireland, meaning a simple like-for-like comparison on the figures coming from each country is not possible – and if a like-for-like comparison is made, it will inaccurately appear as if Ireland is much worse off than Sweden. 

“In a country where the testing coverage is very extensive, where a higher percentage of the population has been tested, then we can be confident that their numbers of cases and deaths are more of a true picture of what’s going on on the ground,” he said. 

“In a country that has only patchy testing, the number of confirmed cases and deaths of people who have tested positive is going to be a huge under count.”

New cases 

Social media posts also claimed that the falling daily totals of 544 new cases on 10 April, 466 cases on 11 April, and 322 new cases on 12 April in Sweden, was evidence that a nationwide lockdown of a country was not necessary to stunt the spread of the virus. 

However, in the days following those daily figures, Sweden witnessed an upward swing in new cases. It recorded 465 new cases on 13 April, 497 new cases on 14 April and 613 new cases on 16 April. 

And as Burns-Murdoch’s explanation of the data above suggests, these figures may represent a large under count of the actual number of cases in Sweden. 

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, said the decision to introduce the softer measures than Sweden’s European neighbours is to ensure they can be “sustained over a longer period”.

“Locking people up at home won’t work in the longer term. Sooner or later people are going to go out anyway,” he said. 

Most countries are making decisions based on their health system’s capacity. For example, in Ireland, the number of people in ICU beds is an important focus for the HSE.  

Sweden has seen more than 1,000 people diagnosed with Covid-19 enter ICU. It has also seen contagion in nursing homes.  

In recent days, countries including the UK and France have extended their restrictions for a further three weeks to halt the spread of the virus.

Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also announced that strict measures in Ireland would be extended until 5 May. 

Finland and Denmark have begun relaxing measures, and the course of the virus in this countries will be closely monitored by their European neighbours.

Sweden is an outlier in terms of its softer approach to halting the spread of Covid-19, and although it has suppressed the spread of the virus more than countries like Italy and Spain, it is inaccurate to claim it has been more successful than those with ‘lockdown’ measures despite them having a higher number of confirmed cases.

It is impossible to determine a country’s success or failure while still in the midst of this pandemic. This article is not to judge Sweden’s approach – it is to clarify the social media posts saying it was suppressing the virus more than other countries by acting in the way it did. The figures show that, at this moment, is untrue. 

***

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering  being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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