Early in the pandemic, Swedish authorities were roundly criticized for the lack of COVID-19 restrictions and for arguing for a different cost-benefit calculation in trying to eliminate the virus at all costs. Now, more and more countries are dropping all restrictions even as Omicron continues to spread. But is this really about herd immunity?
Since Denmark became the first European nation to drop all COVID restrictions in late January, a slew of countries around the world have followed suit — including Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Dominican Republic and, most recently, the UK. After almost two years of curfews and mask mandates, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared Monday it was time to “live with the coronavirus.”
And the list of others taking the same path is set to grow: Italy and Spain recently lifted masking mandates for outdoor spaces, while French authorities have announced indoor masking will no longer be mandated starting next week. Meanwhile, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer harkens “a dignified spring awakening” with most restrictions to be lifted by March 5 — while German Chancellor Olof Scholz hailed last Wednesday “a very special day of the pandemic” after agreeing with 16 state governors on a schedule to drop most restrictions in the coming months.
But all of this rosy talk and rescinded restrictions also begs the question of why this is a special time. Why, as the Omicron variant is spreading far faster than previous versions, and when it’s clear that no nation on Earth has come close to conquering COVID, is it time to abandon containment efforts?
Indeed, public health experts are warning that lifting restrictions risks repeating a wave of winter infections and causing further mutations of the virus. But leaders around the world aren’t listening this time, deciding — seemingly in unison — that the era of lockdowns, closed borders and mask-wearing has come to an end.
The justification? That the healthcare systems in most countries are no longer overburdened — tipping the cost-benefit scales towards the imperative of keeping the economy and society from collapsing.
Cost-benefit calculation for the world
But let's remember that is the very justification Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell gave for refusing lockdowns in the first place — and for which he and Sweden were widely derided as a wrong-headed and cynical policy. Tegnell was forced to repeat ad nauseam in the Swedish and international press that this was not, in fact, a concerted attempt at defeating the virus by achieving “herd immunity” with a majority of the population immunized via infection. Instead, this was the very same kind of cost-benefit calculation based on the specific context of Sweden, whose healthcare system was never overburdened and population in favor of light restrictions.
So what do we make of the fact that Sweden’s strategy (held up globally as a case of reckless defiance or some misguided sense of northern exceptionalism) is now becoming the strategy of the world?
To be clear, this isn’t saying that Sweden didn’t make mistakes: After all, the country’s Public Health Agency has admitted that a central part of the strategy, i.e. protecting the old, failed as nursing homes were under-equipped and ill-prepared to follow health protocols. In addition, the constantly evolving health and social distancing “guidelines” issued by authorities eventually became too numerous and confusing to be effective.
Anti-vaccinal pass protesters in Stockholm
Losing war, claiming victory
Rather, the point is that there’s something worrying about our leaders rebranding what was only months ago agreed upon as a dangerous “herd-immunity” approach as a joyful spring awakening.
Of course, we know from history that politicians have a special talent for proclaiming lost wars a victory. Perhaps, as it’s by now hard to see how anyone would score these last two years a win, the narrative around COVID and restrictions had to change. The real winner is what we’ve come to call “COVID fatigue,” where the economic and health calculations are swept aside by the simple fact that the virus has exhausted society.
The deepening cultural and political divide over everything from lockdowns to vaccines stand as a sad testament to that we now live in a global society where seemingly nothing — not even a common enemy as lethal as this pandemic — can bring the herd together.