By Randall Bolten, longtime Silicon Valley CFO, UC Berkeley Professor, and author of the book Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You
The central question each country – and in the U.S., each state – faces is how to trade off additional COVID-19 cases and the resulting deaths against the economic benefit of opening up the economy. Only an honest assessment of the pandemic’s consequences can help us do that. The four Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland – give the rest of us a great opportunity to make that assessment.
These four countries are geographically close to each other and have cultural and social characteristics in common, but are following very different policies toward the pandemic. Sweden has taken a relatively laissez-faire approach, including keeping schools open as well as most businesses. The other three countries – let’s call them the “Nordic Combined” – have taken the much stricter approach common to many countries, especially in the wealthy west.
Below is a graph showing the weekly progression of the pandemic in each of the four countries through May 30. Total Cases are shown along the horizontal axis, and Total Deaths along the vertical axis, with all results shown on a per 1MM population basis to adjust for population differences. (Note that this is one of those rare graphs where it is NOT a good thing to be farther to the right or higher up! And for the vexillologists reading this, the line and marker schemes for each country are taken from that country’s flag.)
Each marker on a country’s curve measures an additional seven days, so the distance between markers shows the impact of the pandemic during that week – vertically for deaths and horizontally for cases. If the markers are getting closer together, the pace of the pandemic is slowing. We’ve also added a red dot on the graph, showing where the “Nordic Combined” countries would be as of May 30 if the three were grouped together and treated as a single entity.
The differences are striking. Compared to the “Nordic Combined,” Sweden has reported well over double the number of COVID-19 cases and more than six times the number of deaths per capita. In a country the size of the U.S., with 331MM people, that difference in mortality equates to more than 120,000 lives – more than double the current U.S. toll of just over 100,000 lives. Moreover, it’s a virtual certainty that the differences between Sweden and the other three countries will widen even more over the next several weeks – you can tell from the gaps between the weekly markers, which are shrinking significantly for the Norway, Denmark, and Finland curves, but not for Sweden.
The red numbers shown on the graph provide the raw numbers, and also highlight the large difference in tests performed. Norway, Denmark, and Finland combined have done almost 60,000 tests/MM – more than two-and-one-half times the testing rate in Sweden. If testing slows the spread of the disease by identifying asymptomatic or mild cases of COVID-19, that difference in testing would contribute to the large difference in deaths.
Some point with alarm to the higher death rates in countries like Sweden. Others argue that all we’re doing is slowing the rate of a pandemic that will ultimately affect everyone, and that’s not worth the economic damage. The debate rages, even in Sweden. A look at Scandinavia gives us a clear, quantitative look at the illnesses and the deaths involved. So as we start to reopen the economy in the U.S., let’s be honest about the numbers and understand the consequences of our decisions and our actions.