Note: I will revisit and correct this essay when all the data is published—as it looks, I was at least partially wrong.
In this small addendum to my essay The Story of COVID-19 in Sweden, we want to look at a very surprising statistic: the number of annual deaths in Sweden.
You can find the original excel file published by the SCB—the official government agency for statistics in Sweden—here. The most striking aspect of these figures is, of course, the fact that there were no more deaths in Sweden this year than in any other year. (The year is not over yet, but it is almost impossible that the number of deaths will increase so much that 2020 will be a year with significantly more deaths.) And remember, Sweden did not have lockdowns nor mandatory mask laws.
I got the idea to look at the Sweden’s annual deaths statistic because a friend of mine showed me the same statistic for Germany. In Germany, as in Sweden, the number of deaths this year is not higher than in other years, but for Germany, this fact could theoretically be explained by lockdowns and masks. Not so for Sweden.
Someone I showed these figures to suggested that although masks were not mandatory in Sweden, perhaps everyone wore them anyway. To me, this idea immediately sounded ridiculous, and it looks like I was right.
A survey asking participants whether they wore face masks in the last seven days to protect themselves from COVID-19 found that, for example, at the end of April, in the middle of the first COVID-19 wave, 82% of Swedes never wore a face mask. This is in stark contrast to, say, Germany, where only 8% did not wear a mask.
The latest survey—November 9. - 15.—tells the same story.
If you look at this statistic throughout the year, you will see that in Sweden, almost nobody wore face masks, while in Germany, almost everyone did. So what is going on here? How can they not wear masks without a high number of annual deaths? Where are those 7,500 COVID-19 deaths?
To get a better picture of what happened in Sweden, we need to look at the weekly number of deaths.
As you can see here, the first half of 2020 was an exceptionally deadly year. After that, and especially now, Sweden compares favorably with other years.
My explanation for this is simple: most people who would normally have died in the winter from viruses and diseases—especially the flu—died in the spring from COVID-19. This can happen because the groups at risk from these viruses appear to be similar. However, for my explanation to be true, (1) the number of influenza deaths in Sweden would have to be lower than in other years, and (2) COVID-19 would have to have a case-fatality rate (CFR) that is in the ballpark of influenza.
Requirement number one fits the data from other countries like the U.S., where flu deaths have dropped by two-thirds, as this New York Post article titled Drop in flu deaths may indicate that most at risk died from COVID-19 states:
Flu deaths are down two-thirds from the five-year average, a drop that could indicate the most vulnerable Americans died in the first wave of COVID-19.
If anyone can find good data on the number of deaths from influenza and other diseases for 2020 in Sweden, I would greatly appreciate a comment or Twitter DM.
Condition number two—the low CFR—is something I discussed in my other essay. It is still not clear how deadly COVID-19 really is, but estimates are getting lower every time new data comes in, so I do not think this is unlikely.
Whatever the explanation for the low number of annual deaths, it seems that Sweden has done “fine” without lockdowns and masks. Something I think few people would have expected, given how things are portrayed in the media—but that's a different essay. If you have another, perhaps better, explanation for these figures, feel free to suggest it in the comments.
And as always, thank you for reading my essay.