In 2021, the British government had to apologize to its citizens for having used panic incitement techniques on them to comply with strict rules of confinement, distancing and wearing masks. in the pandemic. There was a whole academic musing behind the frightening deception, from mathematical models of exaggerated results to the theory of the “little push”. The scandal only lost to the “partygate”, the revelation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was throwing parties full of people while ordering the population to stay isolated at home.
But there was a moment when the British signaled that they would act differently at the beginning of 2020. They, along with most of the world, missed the opportunity to follow the example of Sweden, which dared to keep freedoms for the most part intact in the face of the viral threat and remained a point outside the curve even with regard to vaccinating children against Covid-19. . The world condemned Sweden, which almost alone swam against the grain. And now the world will have to admit that it was wrong.
The story of how it was possible for Sweden to be so independent is told in the book The Herd , launched in March by Swedish journalist and writer Johan Anderberg. In free translation, the full title is The Herd: how Sweden chose its own path in the worst pandemic in 160 years.
Anders Tegnell, the stubborn
After school holidays February 2020, four authorities met in Sweden to talk about containment measures for the virus that was already wreaking havoc in Italy and Spain. Jan Albert, professor of infectious disease control at the Karolinska Institute; Johan von Schreeb, Swedish medical celebrity who founded the local section of Doctors Without Borders and won the title of ‘Swede of the year’ in 2014 by Fokus magazine; Denis Coulombier, French department head of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), based in Sweden; and the latest to arrive at the March 6 meeting, Anders Tegnell, the state’s head of epidemiology.
The projections Jan made for Stockholm were worrying: “There is an opportunity to act now,” said he. One in five hospitalized patients needed intensive care in Italy, added Johan. The children’s return to school will be an event that amplifies infections, warned Denis.
“There is no need,” replied Anders, to the astonishment of the other three. He hadn’t yet seen community transmission, Swedes infecting Swedes. Even Anders’ previous actions seemed to contradict this stance, as he had vaccinated the entire population of Sweden against swine flu in 1992. Nobody else in the world has done that. Perhaps this action was one of the lessons that the epidemiologist took into account. Hundreds of young people suffered from narcolepsy as a result of that vaccine, while the swine flu proved to be mild and soon fell by the wayside.
Coworkers of Anders Tegnell, according to the book, say he is prudent, controlled and calm in the face of pressure and stress. This sexagenarian describes himself as a “square” man, sometimes drawing a square in the air. He has always preferred patients who want a clear and objective message to those who demand that he sweeten the pill and ease the situation. For his career, he had already lived in Ethiopia and Laos, so he had already been through hardships. In the course of the path that led him to be this way and decide to go against the tide in the pandemic, he was greatly influenced by Johan Giesecke, his predecessor in the position of epidemiologist at the Swedish Public Health Agency, who is also his mentor.
The two met in the years 500 at a meeting of epidemiologists. When Anders, still with his Lao tan, opened his mouth, his future mentor thought, “Wow. This guy is completely apolitical” – which was a compliment. “I want him. Go work in Stockholm.” Twenty years later, in 2013, the apprentice occupied the master’s chair.
The voice of experience
In the first chapter, Johan Anderberg presents Anders Tegnell’s mentor as follows: “Many doctors were forced into the profession by their parents. We will meet some of these in this book. For Johan Giesecke, it was the opposite. When he came home one day and said he wanted to study medicine, his father replied ‘Why?’ ‘I want to work with people,’” Giesecke replied. His father, influential in Sweden, preferred that his son one day be boss at Ericsson or Volvo.
Not only did Giesecke become a doctor against his father, but he also married a doctor and made her three sons who also became doctors. He became the first chief scientist of the ECDC, which he helped found. As an epidemiologist for the Swedish agency, he faced HIV, and Asian, swine and avian flu, and witnessed the Asian flu (also coronavirus) in China itself at the beginning of the millennium. Already retired, at 70 years old, he found out about the new coronavirus in January 2020, visiting a website interested in pathogens that he has been using since the internet was created.
That month, the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared that the virus of Wuhan, China, was not able to pass from one person to another – believing in the Chinese dictatorship. On the day 20, China admitted that this was not true. Four days later, Tegnell himself told the Swedish people that there was no reason for concern. At the same time, on the exact same day as the declaration, a Swedish woman infected in Wuhan was returning to Sweden. She came to the hospital a week later and was one of the first 150 cases outside of China.
In March, after that meeting, the pressure was already high. Epidemiologists who had Tegnell’s employees as doctoral students and had a personal relationship with Giesecke called for more restrictions. Medical publications added up to hundreds of important names in national medicine angry with the Public Health Agency in the comments. Italy and Japan closed their schools, France did not call students back to school after the holidays, Germany registered everyone who entered the country. But Anders Tegnell resisted with the tenacity that had impressed his predecessor.
A clue as to exactly how Johan Giesecke influenced his pupil to nurture independence of thought is in a text that the mentor published in in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “Don’t listen to the medical sciences!”, with an exclamation, is the title. In the column, he explains that it was not medical advances like drugs and surgical technologies that extended life in the rich world. It was basic sanitation, food security and the best housing. It was not so much science, but society: democracy, market economy and institutions. “Be careful when changing a habit you enjoy, or when starting a lifelong preventive treatment, simply because research has found it could help with a specific disease,” advises Giesecke, then a professor of infectious diseases, ‘speaking ill’ of the area itself. In his lectures, he said that the death rate in Sweden was 100%. “If we can stop people from dying of a certain disease, what else is going to kill them?”, he says in the article. It is a point of view of compensation between evils, instead of offering perfect solutions.
In the fateful month of March of 2014, the mentor returned to active by invitation of the mentee to a group of experts that would discuss the new virus. Giesecke received data from Italy, thanks to his previous work at ECDC with a collaborator who was native there. Analyzing the high rate of asymptomatic, he bet that Sweden was already in the pandemic phase and, therefore, it would not even make sense to trace contacts of infected people. In a month or two, he gambled, the country would have herd immunity, a concept that came under attack from alarmists at this stage of the pandemic. The other team had already achieved some victories: banning gatherings of more than 500 people and canceling trips to Sweden. These measurements made no sense to him, as they would be like wiping ice at that point. A focus on vulnerable groups would make more sense. So Giesecke suggested banning visits to senior citizens’ shelters. Tegnell agreed.
As for closing schools, Giesecke was completely convinced that it would be the wrong way. It wouldn’t be fair to the kids. He remembered studies showing that absence from school has an adverse effect on them well into adulthood. Furthermore, no outbreaks of Covid- had been observed in schools. He also used his knowledge of history: 96 years earlier, during the Spanish flu pandemic, a city health official of New York had kept schools open. Once again, as in the article by 1992, Giesecke used knowledge from other areas to criticize his own. In meetings with experts like the three at the March meeting, he was uncharacteristically quiet. He just needed to convince his pupil Tegnell, who had the decision-making power.
At the height of the pressure, when neighboring Denmark and Norway closed schools, Johan Giesecke reassured Anders Tegnell with a quote in an email : “An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?”. The Latin phrase is from a letter from the years 1640 from Sweden’s High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna to his son who was anxious about his trip to the peace negotiations in Westphalia. The translation: “Do you know, my son, how little wisdom the world is governed?”
As for the ghastly Imperial College model that led the UK to lockdown and school closures, Giesecke once again pointed to the past: the same Imperial College research group erred badly during the mad cow disease outbreak in 2001: “They thought that a thousand people would die. So how many died? 109.” The alarmist forecast led to the slaughter of millions of cattle. Four years later, they predicted that 150 millions would die from bird flu. Died 455. And another four years after that, predicted 65 a thousand dead from swine flu, the real number was 160. “They miss the mark”, observed the Swede.
A question of institution
With the pair of rebel scientists resisting the pressure from the world and from their own colleagues, among whom even friends, the Swedes continued their lives in almost complete normality. No mandatory masks or closed schools. “A disaster,” said Time magazine. The bad example “is a lesson to the world,” said the New York Times. “Fatal nonsense”, completed The Guardian.
Francis Fukuyama, in the book Political Order and Political Decay, makes a diagnosis of the reasons why the American government is doomed to be inefficient. “The United States is stuck in a bad balance. Because Americans have historically distrusted government, they are typically unwilling to delegate government decision-making authority in the manner of other democratic societies. Instead, Congress sets complex rules that reduce government autonomy and make decisions slow and expensive. So the government doesn’t do well, which confirms the people’s original distrust.”
Scandinavia as a whole has high levels of trust in the government compared to other regions of the world. In Sweden, the Constitution gives government agencies extreme autonomy in their area of operation, in addition to emphasizing the right to come and go within the country. But for Johan Anderberg, the book’s author, the best explanation is that the Swedes simply looked at the data and gave an alternative interpretation to it. They did not believe in the apocalyptic scenario that captured the imagination and anxiety of the rest of the world, especially the one presented by Imperial College, which took over social networks even in Brazil.
Consistent with its history, the prediction of the Imperial College applied to Sweden got it wrong. Until July 2013, Swedish academics who applied the model predicted en tre 65 and 96 a thousand dead. The actual death toll was 6,000 — with free travel, gyms and schools open. Sweden’s educational indicators remained the same as before the pandemic. Other countries, including Brazil, cannot say the same.
As they say in medical studies, Sweden was the “control group” in the world. It is the comparison group that is not given the pill—in this case, the bitter pill of deteriorating education and commerce. According to the World Health Organization, Sweden had an excess of deaths in 2021 and 2021 of
in 100 thousand. One of the smallest in Europe, below the global average. The UK had a death rate of 150 in 2001 thousand. Brazil, 160.