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How Risky is Sweden’s Herd Immunity Gamble

As a handful of governors across the United States start opening up their states, it is interesting to consider the different approaches that societies around the world have taken towards the COVID-19 crisis. In particular, Sweden and Denmark are being watched for their very different ways of dealing with the pandemic. While Denmark quickly put its citizens on lockdown, Sweden initiated minimal restrictions. Beyond a ban on visiting nursing homes and gatherings of over 50 people, life in Sweden has carried on pretty much like normal.

Sweden’s approach involves letting people be exposed to the virus in an attempt to create herd immunity, a population’s ability to resist a disease as a result of a high percentage of its members being immune. The concept of herd immunity is not new, nor is it without controversy. For example, in 2018 the western world experienced a spike in measles cases, and some 41,000 people in Europe were infected. Many at the time touted herd immunity as the solution even though the medical industrial complex, the multibillion-dollar enterprise consisting of doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, insurance companies, drug manufacturers, and hospital supply and equipment companies, generally recommends that this process be built through vaccinating the population, not widespread infection. Initially, the United Kingdom took the herd immunity approach with COVID-19, but upon reflection on the implications to its population and hospital system, decided to reverse course and implement a more strenuous social distance and quarantine approach.

Has the Swedish approach worked? Only time will truly tell. As of this moment, there has been a 35% increase in deaths amongst the Swedes, versus a 7% increase amongst the Danes. As the U.S. begins to ease restrictions and return to “normal,” it is worth asking ourselves whether the Swedish approach would work here. While there are hosts of variables that must be considered, there are two points worth making right now. First, in 2019 Sweden was identified as the fifth healthiest population in the world. The United States came in 64th on that list. From obesity to heart disease, the United States does not have a particularly healthy population. Second, Sweden offers its population (residents and expats) universal health insurance. Prior to the pandemic, 44 million Americans were without health insurance, and 38 million had inadequate health insurance. That means that even in good times, millions and millions of Americans potentially grapple with maintaining their health, a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.  Add to these numbers estimates that over 7 million more Americans will lose their health insurance because they lost their job during this pandemic. Could the Swedish approach work here? Arguably, our national approaches to health are too different to easily overlay the Swedish model onto the United States.

The specter of COVID-19 has added an urgency to the health of populations around the world. The study of this pandemic falls under the category of medical sociology, the sociological analysis of social interactions, organizations, and systems related to health, illness, and medicine.

This blog post is provided by the co-authors of SociologicalYOU (Fourth Edition), a digital NextGen Introductory Sociology textbook engaging students in critical thinking to “Connect Sociology and YOU!” For more information, contact