REVIEW: The Herd by Johan Anderberg

In brief: A review of how Sweden handled the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in a different way to the rest of the world – and the effects it had.

The good: Very detailed showing what went into making the decisions about restrictions.

The not-so-good: Sometimes I forgot who some of the people were.

Why I chose it: I like reading about pandemics and COVID-19. Thanks to Scribe for the copy.

Year: 2021 (in Swedish), 2022 (in English)

Pages: 321

Translator: Alice E. Olsson

Publisher: Scribe 

Setting: Sweden

Rating: 8 out of 10

Everyone has heard about Sweden and COVID-19. While the rest of the world locked down and stayed home, the people of Sweden lived a relatively normal life during 2020. They went to school or work, and dined in restaurants before dancing in nightclubs. But why was Sweden so different? More importantly, how well did Sweden fare compared to other countries? This book describes what happened, why and how it changed.

The Herd describes a number of key figures in Sweden’s initial pandemic response and how the decisions not to lockdown were made, with the background to understand why. News reports declined to share how these decisions were made (and they weren’t made easily, with a lot of discussion, consultation and thoughts). One of the key differences is that Sweden’s initial handling of the pandemic was managed by public health experts without including political rivalries or how things would look to voters. Another thing to keep in mind is that Sweden took a different path during the swine flu pandemic, vaccinating the entire population, which led to some harm with some people developing Guillain-Barre syndrome. (If you don’t remember swine flu, it’s because it really didn’t have the impact initially predicted). So Sweden was determined to be cautious, consider the evidence and make decisions without politics being the major factor.

Anderberg has really done his homework, with descriptions of emails between the main players, as well as describing the evidence and models (with their benefits and shortcomings). He makes obvious how much we just didn’t know at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and why some of the initial models ended up being way off. (The short of it is, the better the data you put in, the more accurate the output is. Or, it’s like baking a cake when you only know one ingredient. You can guess the rest, but it probably won’t taste the same). There are good descriptions of not only modelling, but cost benefit analysis which make sense to the lay reader. It also describes how muddied the message can get when other factors are at play like egos and political drive.

The events are clearly laid out and told in a logical, orderly fashion without suggesting Sweden’s path was superior to that taken to other countries. (It does go into the resulting data though). It’s a fascinating look at a different pathway that made me reconsider a lot of the history I’ve read about pandemics. Is the way it’s always been the right way? Or can we do more with the tools we have (models, cost-benefit analyses)? Well worth a read if you’re interested in pandemic responses.

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