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Sweden didn't lock down during pandemic, but its economy still looks set to plunge

Sweden’s response to Covid-19 has differed to most countries.

People in Malmo, Sweden last month.
People in Malmo, Sweden last month.
Image: Johan Nilsson/TT

UNLIKE MOST COUNTRIES, Sweden never locked down during the coronavirus pandemic, largely keeping businesses operating, but the economy appears to be taking a hard hit nonetheless.

Under the Scandinavian country’s controversial approach to the virus, cafes, bars, restaurants and most businesses remained open, as did schools for under-16s, with people urged to follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

Whatever hope there may have been that this policy would soften the economic blow now seems dashed.

“As in most of the world, there will be a record decline for the Swedish economy in Q2,” SEB bank economist Olle Holmgren said. 

Sweden’s top epidemiologist said last week that there was room for improvement in the country’s softer approach to curbing the spread of Covid-19.

But Anders Tegnell, the public face of Sweden’s virus response, defended the decision not to impose a strict lockdown.

“If we were to encounter the same disease with everything we know about it today, I think we would end up doing something in between what Sweden and the rest of the world has done,” Tegnell told Swedish Radio last Wednesday.

‘A long time’

A rebound was likely in the latter part of the year, but “we expect it to take a long time before the situation normalises,” bank economist Olle Holmgren told AFP.

Swedish officials insist their strategy was always aimed at public health, and never specifically at saving the economy.

The idea was to make sure hospitals could keep pace with the outbreak and protect the elderly and at-risk groups.

Sweden has succeeded at the former, but admitted failure at the latter, with more than three-quarters of virus deaths occurring among nursing home residents and those receiving care at home.

america-protests-sweden Protesters in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Stockholm, Sweden last week. Source: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

“When we have decided what measures to take to stop the virus from spreading, we have not had any economic considerations. We have followed the advice of our [public health] experts on this issue,” Finance Minister, Magdalena Andersson, told reporters in late May.

Still, authorities acknowledge that keeping businesses open was also part of a broader public health consideration, as high unemployment and a weak economy typically lead to poorer public health.

Sweden, a country of 10.3 million, had reported 4,639 Covid-19 deaths as of Friday.

That gives it one of the world’s highest virus mortality rates, with 459.3 deaths per million inhabitants – four times more than neighbouring Denmark and 10 times more than Norway, which both imposed stricter confinement measures.

At first Sweden’s export-heavy economy seemed to be doing okay, with GDP actually growing by 0.1% in the first quarter.

But now the country is expected to follow the same path as most of Europe, with its economy shrinking for the full-year 2020 and unemployment soaring. 

GDP down, unemployment up  

In April, the government predicted GDP would contract by four percent in 2020, compared to its January forecast of 1.1% growth.

While the European Commission has forecast a Swedish contraction of 6.1% (compared to -6.5 % for Germany and -7.7% for the eurozone), the outlook presented by the Swedish central bank is even more dire – it anticipates a GDP decline of up to 10%.

Some economists see Swedish growth rebounding as early as the second half of 2020, but the finance minister has warned things could get worse before they get better.

Before the crisis, Sweden’s labour market was in good shape, with strong job creation and a declining unemployment rate.

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Now, the government expects a jobless rate of 9% for 2020 and 2021, compared to 6.8% in 2019.

It sees growth of 3.5% in 2021. 

Export-based economy 

Sweden’s sharp downturn is largely explained by its dependence on exports, which account for around 50% of GDP.

“70 percent of Swedish exports go to the EU. Shutdowns in Germany, the UK and so on are expected to hit Swedish exports considerably,” the government said.

In March, some of the country’s biggest companies, such as automaker Volvo Cars and truckmaker Scania, halted production in Sweden.

This was not because of local restrictions, but because of problems with supply chains in Europe and the rest of the world. Their activities have since resumed.

Meanwhile, consumption plunged by 24.8% between March 11 and April 5, according to a study conducted by four University of Copenhagen economists.

“Sweden is paying the same price [as Denmark] for the coronavirus pandemic. The explanation is that when you are in a galloping crisis, consumers pull the emergency brake, whether restaurants are closed or not,” Niels Johannesen, one of the four economists, told Swedish daily Helsingborgs Dagblad.

The government in mid-March announced measures worth nearly $32 billion (€28.3 billion) to help businesses.

Since then, more money has been allocated and new measures have been added, including a reduction of employers’ contributions, as well as paying companies’ costs for furloughed workers and sick leave.

“Given the state of government finances there is room for more expansionary fiscal policy ahead,” Olle Holmgren said. 

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