A hundred years ago, in New York City, 20,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue in protest against one of the greatest public health policy experiments in history. One of them was wearing a sign featuring an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” beside the slogan, “Wine was served.” There were posters of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Another read: “Tyranny in the name of righteousness is the worst of all tyrannies.”
For a year, beer, wine and spirits had been illegal throughout the United States. From a public health perspective, it seemed a reasonable enough measure. That alcohol was a dangerous substance was clear: disease, violence, poverty and crime were intimately bound up with it. Even now, despite its failure, it is known as the “noble experiment”. But was it right to prevent people from making drinks they not only enjoyed, but that also served important cultural and religious purposes? Not for the first time, Americans found themselves torn in a balance between freedom and security — nor for the last.
Until recently, prohibition remained the largest experiment in social engineering a democracy had ever undertaken. And then, in early 2020, a new virus began to spread from China. Faced with this threat, the world’s governments responded by closing schools, banning people from meeting, forcing entrepreneurs to shut their businesses and making ordinary people wear face masks. Like prohibition, this experiment provoked a debate. In all the democracies of the world, freedom was weighed against what was perceived as security; individual rights versus what was considered best for public health.
Few now remember that for most of 2020, the word “experiment” had negative connotations. That was what Swedes were accused of conducting when we — unlike the rest of the world — maintained some semblance of normality. The citizens of this country generally didn’t have to wear face masks; young children continued going to school; leisure activities were largely allowed to continue unhindered.
This experiment was judged early on as “a disaster” (Time magazine), a “the world’s cautionary tale” (New York Times), “deadly folly” (the Guardian). In Germany, Focus magazine described the policy as “sloppiness”; Italy’s La Repubblica concluded that the “Nordic model country” had made a dangerous mistake. But these countries — all countries — were also conducting an experiment, in that they were testing unprecedented measures to prevent the spread of a virus. Sweden simply chose one path, the rest of Europe another.
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The hypothesis of the outside world was that Sweden’s freedom would be costly. The absence of restrictions, open schools, reliance on recommendations instead of mandates and police enforcement would result in higher deaths than other countries. Meanwhile, the lack of freedom endured by the citizens of other countries would “save lives.”
Many Swedes were persuaded by this hypothesis. “Shut down Sweden to protect the country,” wrote Peter Wolodarski, perhaps the country’s most powerful journalist. Renowned infectious diseases experts, microbiologists and epidemiologists from all over the country warned of the consequences of the government’s policy. Researchers from Uppsala University, the Karolinska Institute and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm produced a model powered by supercomputers that predicted 96,000 Swedes would die before the summer of 2020.
At this stage, it was not unreasonable to conclude that Sweden would pay a high price for its freedom. Throughout the spring of 2020, Sweden’s death toll per capita was higher than most other countries.
But the experiment didn’t end there. During the year that followed, the virus continued to ravage the world and, one by one, the death tolls in countries that had locked down began to surpass Sweden’s. Britain, the US, France, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain, Argentina, Belgium — countries that had variously shut down playgrounds, forced their children to wear facemasks, closed schools, fined citizens for hanging out on the beach and guarded parks with drones — have all been hit worse than Sweden. At the time of writing, more than 50 countries have a higher death rate. If you measure excess mortality for the whole of 2020, Sweden (according to Eurostat) will end up in 21st place out of 31 European countries. If Sweden was a part of the US, its death rate would rank number 43 of the 50 states.
This fact is shockingly underreported. Consider the sheer number of articles and TV segments devoted to Sweden’s foolishly liberal attitude to the pandemic last year — and the daily reference to figures that are forgotten today. Suddenly, it is as if Sweden doesn’t exist. When the Wall Street Journal recently published a report from Portugal, it described how the country “offered a glimpse” of what it would be like to live with the virus. This new normal involved, among other things, vaccine passports and face masks at large events like football matches. Nowhere in the report was it mentioned that in Sweden you can go to football matches without wearing a facemask, or that Sweden — with a smaller proportion of Covid deaths over the course of the pandemic — had ended virtually all restrictions. Sweden has been living with the virus for some time.
The WSJ is far from alone in its selective reporting. The New York Times, Guardian, BBC, The Times, all cheerleaders for lockdowns, can’t fathom casting doubt on their efficacy.
And those who’ve followed Sweden’s example have also come in for a lot of criticism. When the state of Florida — more than a year ago and strongly inspired by Sweden — removed most of its restrictions and allowed schools, restaurant and leisure parks to reopen, the judgement from the American media was swift. The state’s Republican governor was predicted to “lead his state to the morgue” (The New Republic). The media was outraged by images of Floridians swimming and sunbathing at the beach.
DeSantis’s counterpart in New York, the embattled Democrat Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand, was offered a book deal for his “Leadership lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic”. A few months ago, he was forced to resign after harassing a dozen women. But the result of his “leadership lesson” lives on: 0.29% of his state’s residents died of Covid-19. The equivalent figure for Florida — the state that not only allowed the most freedom, but also has the second highest proportion of pensioners in the country — is 0.27%.
Once again, an underreported fact.
From a human perspective, it is easy to understand the reluctance to face these numbers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that millions of people have been deprived of their freedom, and millions of children have had their education gravely damaged, for little demonstrable gain. Who wants to admit that they were complicit in this? But what one American judge called the “laboratories of democracy” have conducted their experiment — and the result is increasingly clear.
Exactly why it turned out this way is harder to explain, but perhaps the “noble experiment” of the 1920s in the US can offer some clues. Prohibition didn’t win because the freedom argument prevailed. Nor was it because the substance itself had become any less harmful to people’s health. The reason for the eventual demise of the alcohol ban was that it simply didn’t work. No matter what the law said, Americans didn’t stop drinking alcohol. It simply moved from bars to “speakeasies”. People learned to brew their own spirits or smuggle it in from Canada. And the American mafia had a field day.
The mistake the American authorities made was to underestimate the complexity of society. Just because they banned alcohol did not mean that alcohol disappeared. People’s drives, desires and behaviours were impossible to predict or fit into a plan. A hundred years later, a new set of authorities made the same mistake. Closing schools didn’t stop children meeting in other settings; when life was extinguished in cities, many fled them, spreading the infection to new places; the authorities urged their citizens to buy food online, without thinking about who would transport the goods from home to home.
If the politicians had been honest with themselves, they might have foreseen what would happen. For just as American politicians were constantly caught drinking alcohol during the prohibition, their successors were caught 100 years later breaking precisely the restrictions they had imposed on everyone else. The mayors of New York and Chicago, the British government’s top advisor, the Dutch Minister of Justice, the EU Trade Commissioner, the Governor of California all broke their own rules.
It isn’t easy to control other people’s lives. It isn’t easy to dictate desirable behaviours in a population via centralised command. These are lessons that many dictators have learned. During the Covid pandemic, many democracies have learned it too. The lesson has perhaps not yet sunk in, but hopefully it will eventually. Then perhaps it will be another 100 years before we make the same mistake again.