The full video interview between Marian L. Tupy and Johan Norberg can be found here. The transcript is below.
Marian Tupy: Johan, thank you very much for doing this interview with me. I much appreciate it. I want to talk about progress, but since you are Swedish and live in Stockholm, I thought I would start with the latest in terms of COVID in Sweden. Can you just summarize very briefly how the Swedish approach is different from the one that we've seen in the United States or the rest of western Europe?
Johan Norberg: Well, Sweden is the outlier I would say. It's the one country that I know about of the western democracies where we haven't had a shutdown of society. We haven't closed the borders or shut down restaurants, businesses, gyms, and public transportation. There's no stay-at-home order in place. The one more important restriction is that public events with more than 50 people are not allowed in Sweden for the moment, but apart from that, most of it is based on voluntary social distancing. We are recommended that you don't go to work if you don't have to and don't travel if you don't have to and so on. And it seems, according to mobility data, that most Swedes have changed their behavior quite dramatically.
The latest in terms of COVID-19 is that it seems like we're now past the peak in Sweden. The number of new arrivals in intensive care has been actually been stable for almost two months in Sweden, so it's always been a fairly stable situation without the kind of exponential growth that people talked about. And now for the last two weeks, we've also seen an absolute decline in people in intensive care and the number of deaths is slowly declining. So, with some luck, we are getting past this and we attain more immunity so that society can get back to everyday life and the elderly can go back to normal life sooner than in other places.
MT: So is the unspoken goal of the Swedish government to actually introduce herd immunity through the back door so to speak, and what would be the reason for it? Is the reason that when the second or third wave comes or if the virus never goes away and we don't develop a vaccine, the Swedes don't have to shut down the society and they can just carry on working? What do you think about that as a goal?
JN: Yeah, well they would deny that this is the goal, and they're saying that herd immunity is the only way that this is going to end, but how we get there is another matter. And then the authorities and the government have said that we are not trying to suppress the disease. We are trying to slow it down – mitigation, rather than suppression. And the reason is that they think that no one is going to escape this. No countries will be able to suppress this entirely, except perhaps some small island nation somewhere. This will come back and countries that have been in lockdown will see a second wave once they get out of it, so they will end up where Sweden is. The only question is: will it be more painful? Will we ruin and wreck our society and our economy while doing it?
That's the assumption behind this – that the only way to escape it entirely is a vaccine, and that might be a year away if we're lucky. And no society is able to shut down for a year, and no one is planning on it. So Swedish authorities think that we're going to have to live with it for a long time, and in that case, it's better to slowly get it through the population rather than having this kind of start-and-stop process that you'll get if you enter a lockdown: you get out of it, you'll get a new wave, then you might get back into a lockdown, and then you have no way of planning your individual life or business or trade or anything. And it might be even more dangerous in the long run for human lives.
MT: Would you go as far as to say that if the shutdown like the one that is practiced in Britain or the United States is successful enough, it will actually hinder the health – both economic but also social health – of the society come autumn.
JN: Yes, and this is the way I look upon this. It's not about saving human lives or saving the economy because the economy is human lives. We know that great depressions take a terrible human toll in several ways: the immediate effects of unemployment, of enforced lockdowns with the kind of mental problems, the domestic abuse that we're seeing. But also, in the long run, obviously, less wealth means that we invest less in new medical technology, in drugs, less spending on health care. And then we'll suffer more in the long run than we would have otherwise, and my personal opinion is that it’s basically a kind of precautionary principle rationally understood because we don't know how to deal with the disease.
Not just you and I since we don't have that kind of scientific background, but even the experts have a diversity of opinion. We don't know if the Swedish version or the US version is going to be better in the long run, but what we do know is that lockdowns take a terrible toll on human liberties, on human lives, and on wealth in the long run. So, a precautionary principle rationally understood would say to try to be cautious now. Don't engage in this terrible experiment to close down the world to the extent that we've done.
MT: Now, what I find very interesting – switching topics a little bit – is that here in the United States, there's sort of an unholy alliance of Trump and the left basically bashing Sweden for what it had done. So, I guess there are a couple of questions there. Why do you think that's happening and secondly, as COVID clearly has become very political in the United States, has it become political in Sweden? First, let's look at the American politics and then the Swedish politics.
JN: Yeah, well personally I’m not surprised because this is the kind of new strange political realignment that we're seeing. You know, Bernie Sanders thinks that Donald Trump stole his best ideas, and we have Tucker Carlson on Fox News saying that Elizabeth Warren sounds like Trump on a good day. If there's anything uniting the new nationalist right and the statist left, it’s that they both want some kind of strong man in charge in Washington, D.C., telling everybody how to run their lives. Obviously, the Swedish model is a threat to that assumption if it turns out that individuals are adapting and changing their everyday lives in accordance with new data and they can solve the problems for themselves.
Obviously, statists to both the left and the right will find this a little bit threatening to their worldview and especially if Sweden does it far away from where you are, and it turns out that you bet on the wrong horse. It's obviously become political in the US. There is a diversity of opinion in Sweden as well. I would say there’s a healthy debate between everybody, experts as well, but it has not really become political. Those who have been most opposed to what is happening right now are the nationalist-populist right in Sweden. They have tried to argue for shutting down the schools and certain versions of lockdowns and so on, but even they have gone quiet right now. That suggests to me that they are reading public opinion in Sweden as being broadly in agreement with what's happening in Sweden right now.
MT: It's very interesting that you said that in Sweden, the government to a great extent trusts that people will make rational choices in their lives and try to minimize their exposure to infection and change their behavior. There is a government that is putting trust in the people to adjust. So we can maybe talk a little bit about whether Sweden is different in terms of infantilization of its population. In America, the government doesn't trust its people to do the right thing, but I think there is also the other side of the trust issue. I keep hearing a lot about the Swedish people trusting their government to deliver the best possible outcome, whereas in America, half of the population doesn't trust a government of the opposite side and vice versa. So can we talk a little bit about trust? Is Sweden special in that sense? What is going on? How do you understand trust?
JN: I think Sweden, or at least Scandinavia, is a little bit different, and it's not just my reading. If you look at polls, when people are being asked, “Do you trust your neighbors? Do you trust a stranger in the streets or even politicians?” more Swedes and Norwegians would say yes compared to other places. And it goes both ways. I think there is more of an understanding from governmental authorities that if they come with a recommendation saying that this is important right now – for example, to engage in social distancing, especially if you're over 70 – then they generally would trust Swedes to do that. For example, when it comes to inoculation vaccines, that's not mandatory even for the worst diseases in Sweden, but more Swedes do it than in almost any other place. In Italy, where it is mandatory, fewer people vaccinate their kids. So there seems to be something of a difference there, and I think this goes a long way back in history.
Some people try to say that this is because of the welfare state and our social democratic traditions in Sweden, but that is hard to square with the fact that people of Swedish ancestry in the United States also show the same pattern of trust, and they emigrated to the US 150 years ago, a long time before anybody thought of social democracy or the welfare state. So, I think it goes further back in history, to our history of not having had feudalism. We're not used to having an aristocrat abusing and exploiting us constantly – no foreign invaders, no wars for 200 years, no dictatorship. The guy in charge is probably something like the descendant of self-owning, property-owning, small-scale farmers, and he might be your second cousin. I mean, it's a small country, so you think that they're not there to abuse the position. They have not come from a strange place to suck the economy dry or anything like that. They're probably there to try to do something approaching a good job.
MT: I want to talk to you a little bit about your article in The Spectator last week, which is very good. You wrote about the problems with COVID modeling, which, after all, is underpinning so much of what different governments in different parts of the world do. Can you talk a little bit about your modeling thesis? What are the lessons to be drawn from it?
JN: Well, it just begins with the basic realization that all the models were garbage. The projections that they came up with – some of them just a month ago – said that at this time right now, we would have 30 to 40 Swedes fighting over every intensive care unit bed in hospitals, that we would have a dramatic lack of places in hospitals and of ventilators and so on. Now, it actually turns out that right now, we have an extra capacity of around 30 percent, so it's just 0.7 people fighting over every ICU bed. That tells you that something has gone wrong in those models. Obviously, the future is always strange and uncertain, but one of the things that I think went wrong when you go back and look at their papers is that they had no column for voluntary changes in behavior. They had mandatory lockdowns of various degrees or they had business as usual with nobody changing their behavior.
I think that completely underestimates human nature and apparently completely misunderstood what went on in Sweden because we had lots of spontaneous changes in behavior. That's one factor, but that cannot explain it all because it turns out that when you read them carefully, two of the papers that I looked closely at thought that even if Sweden one month ago chose to implement the harshest version of European lockdowns and shutdowns of society entirely, we would still have 10 patients fighting over every ICU bed in Sweden right now, that we would have a collapsing healthcare system and tens of thousands of deaths by now. That has clearly not happened, so it's also trying to understand the world by setting hundreds of parameters manually, trying to come up with some sort of percentage probability that you lessen the mitigation. It's close to useless.
MT: So why do you think that people in general and politicians in particular accepted these models as scripture and reorganized societies to fit with those models? It seems to me that implied within your criticism of these models is that not all science is created equal. Can you talk a little bit about that? What is the proper place of science in society?
JN: Yeah, there is a difference between science to understand the world and to understand what is going on and science as an attempt to model the future. Without much of an empirical basis, some of these models clearly just used the historical pattern until now, what had happened in the past months. They just set the parameters so that the model could explain what had happened until now and see what will happen in the future, which I think is close to useless. There are 3.5 reasons why they became so influential. No, there's not, but when I say 3.5, you pay attention because you think I've really done my homework. We've learned that through psychological experiments. When you give a precise number, it sounds like you're on top of things. When you say that we’ll have a deficit of a factor of 34.5 in ICUs in Swedish hospitals, that captures your attention in a way that it doesn't when you say that we think we will run out of capacity because of these factors. So because modeling precisely gives us those precise numbers and scary trajectories, we pay attention to them. Also, they were so scary. They looked awful. I mean, they scared me as well into thinking that perhaps I should just get a quick health care education over a couple of days and just run to a hospital and try to save as many lives as possible. That's also something you and I know about human psychology. Scary, dramatic, shocking things we pay attention to, and when they sound precise, it's enough in some places to get people to switch policy completely. I think there's a fair argument behind that. Britain changed its policy because of models like this.
MT: Could it also be that politicians operating in a very uncertain environment and obviously trying to minimize risk to their careers and their political parties and so forth were very happy to outsource the decision-making to the scientific community, saying, “Well, look, it's out of our hands. We can't really make these decisions because scientists are saying one thing and we have to follow what they're saying.”? So, is there sort of a self-preservation aspect to this?
JN: Yes, obviously it's nice not to be responsible, but I think what they've done quite often is that they're then hiding behind the scientists and the health authorities. For example, it seems like that's the case in Britain. The prime minister's close advisor Dominic Cummings told the independent scientific advisory board that it would be really useful if they argued in favor of a lockdown right now because that would help us, and two days later they did. I don't think it's really true that they're yielding to scientists and experts. It's more like they want it to seem like they are yielding to them. This is really something that sets Sweden apart from some of our neighbors. In Sweden, politicians really have yielded to the experts and listened to them and said, “Okay, let's not lock down in that case.” Whereas we heard in our neighboring countries that the Norwegian public health authority said, “No, don't shut down schools. That will be incredibly painful for families, and we’ll lose important workers, and it won't help us with mitigation.” But the government went ahead anyway. In Denmark, the public health authority said, “There's no reason to shut down our borders. This is just a political decision.” And it was a political decision. Especially when we're all traveling blind, you don't want all the responsibility obviously. You can hide behind expertise, but you can also hide behind what other countries are doing. And that's a debate that we've had in every country: why aren't you doing what China did or Italy or Spain did? This has been one of the major arguments in the Swedish debate: why should we go it alone when everybody else did this? Herd immunity has become a very loaded term in the debate, but I think this herd mentality that we're seeing in decision making is much worse. I
MT: It would be remiss of me if I didn't mention that, of course, you are a very famous proponent of human progress. Maybe you wouldn't call yourself an optimist but a realist, and the realistic picture of the world is much better than most people assume.
JN: I would borrow Matt Ridley's phrase and call myself a rational optimist, which is really the same as a realist.
MT: Has COVID shaken your rational optimism about the long-term potential for our species?
JN: Well absolutely not, because optimism – at least rational optimism – has never been about thinking that we'll never face any problems, that mankind is just going to have a good time and not have to worry about anything. Problems are part of the world and the universe, and we're going to get them. We've always had pandemics. We'll have pandemics in the future as well. Progress is a term that relates to human behavior and how we are changing and adapting the world to our needs, rather than a sort of a metaphysical worldview. And then I would say that I think that we have already seen the belief in human progress confirmed by this crisis because never before in mankind's history have we responded to a new pandemic this quickly. We can read the genome of the virus in six days, a technique using technology that didn't exist until 1995. The world is screaming out for new ventilators, but in the year 1950, we had a total number of one ventilator on the whole planet. So that tells you something. We've always had pandemics, but for the first time, we now have the scientific discoveries, the technological innovations, and the human wealth so that we’re able to strike back against these horrors.
MT: What is the one thing that you would like our viewers to take away from not just our discussion but what you have observed about COVID since its start? You're obviously in the middle of it. You've given a lot of interviews. How would you provide the viewers with a tonic or a lesson to take away?
JN: Well, let me start with something a little bit hopeful, even though we should always be a little bit cautious in the middle of a crisis. This virus in itself and the disease in itself is not as bad as we thought it was going to be. This will not be a new Spanish flu. It will be awful. It will be terrible. It will kill thousands and thousands of people around the world, but it doesn't have that combination of spreading quickly and being dangerous as to kill tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world. And luckily, it seems to spare most of the young. Had we had to worry about our kids as well at this time, that would have seemed apocalyptical in every sense. So we are getting through this, and this in is, in a way, a test run of the next pandemic because sooner or later, we'll get a new pandemic of those apocalyptical proportions.
This is the time to learn some lessons about what works and what doesn't work. Why weren't we better prepared? What can scientists change? What can hospitals and what can governments change so that we're better prepared the next time death comes knocking because in that case, we might save millions of lives? Everything that we're doing is a learning process, and that's also one of the reasons why I think that the world should be grateful for the Swedish model. It seems like everybody else is experimenting with one way of approaching this. But then we’ll have at least one country attempting another solution so that we can learn from it the next time around. That's my one hope for the future.
If there are other lessons to be drawn or a message to the viewers, it's a twofold one. First of all, historically, pandemics are almost always followed by more closed societies. Unfortunately, it somehow triggers our psychological immune system, and we become more afraid of the world, of people, of foreigners, of international trade, of being dependent on supply chains that are global, and often we build walls after this period. We’re going to have to be prepared for that kind of argument or at least sentiment in the future. I’m afraid because that will make us less prepared for problems in the future. On the other hand, the lesson I think we should draw is that this was a preview of the horror movie of a combination of Greta Thunberg and Steve Bannon running the world. Nobody's traveling anymore, no migration, no mobility, no trade, no offshoring, and it's not as nice as it looked in the ad. This is awful. We just shut down the world for two months, and the result is already global depression, mass unemployment, and in poorer countries, mass poverty and hunger and starvation. So if you've had that preview of the horror movie of a deglobalized world, why would anyone want to make that permanent?
MT: Thank you very much for joining me today. It was wonderful. I really appreciate the time that you've given us.
JN: Thank you so much, Marian.