A Tale of Two Lockdowns: Sweden vs. the Philippines

A Tale of Two Lockdowns: Sweden vs. the Philippines
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Do Covid-19 lockdowns work? Almost countless factors will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, be it countries, states, counties, cities, or whatever. That said, a comparison of one country with essentially no lockdown and another with perhaps the world’s harshest and longest (indeed, still ongoing and officially called “The New Normal”) may be instructive. In brief, we have Sweden that basically got it over with quickly and not without pain, and the Philippines where maybe initial cases and deaths were dampened but is now in a horrible fantasy that could be called “The NeverEnding Lockdown” despite a population that demographically is highly-Covid resistant.

Rather than joining most nations hell-bent on becoming the first to wipe out an airborne virus by quarantining the healthy, Sweden emphasized personal responsibility, social distancing and good hygiene to slow the disease to ensure medical facilities wouldn’t be overwhelmed. In that, it clearly succeeded. Otherwise the country simply allowed people to become infected in the knowledge that one way or another that’s what happens.

The Philippines, conversely, took advantage of Covid-19 to become more authoritarian than before, then used that enhanced authoritarianism to crack down hard with practically any restrictions that fertile politician minds could think of. Significantly, where other countries use health officials, America’s former colony of 110 million people has often used generals. “War” metaphors are no metaphors, though the enemy can be debatable.

Yes, much is control for its own sake that would cause even some lockdown advocates to cringe. Much is designed to aid corruption from the top down. The worse off the people, the more foreign aid, the more money for government officials to skim.

That said, regardless of motivations it’s still been a lockdown advocate’s dream. Facemasks have been mandatory even outdoors everywhere since April 1 (putting to lie CDC Director Robert Redfield’s claim that masking up for just 1-2 months could work magic in the U.S.). Masks plus face shields are now mandatory in some areas, despite a lack of evidence of the efficacy of the two together outside of indoor medical settings. About half the population – those below 21 and over 60 – have to “stay at home at all times” except for proven emergencies. There’s a nightly curfew and most businesses close long before it begins. Early on it was illegal to venture out on Sundays at all, and all liquor sales were banned. In some jurisdictions they still are.

More recently, businesses and buildings containing businesses are forced to have entrants fill out contact tracing forms that everyone I’ve asked is convinced are thrown out at the end of the day. You also have to dip your shoes in disinfectant, have a forehead thermal reading, and receive a squirt of hand sanitizer.

All of this led to an added “bonus.” Laws have largely become superfluous. With all life evolving around Covid-19, with the sudden thrust into a post-apocalyptic movie set, the people are absolutely terrified and self-isolate accordingly. Many have fled the more-densely populated cities and you can spot people wearing two masks at once in the stultifying heat and humidity. Signs warn against talking, regardless of masks and shields. A food commercial shows a family replacing hugs with elbow taps. Likewise, perhaps more powerful than any law has been the breaking of spirits. Depression is ubiquitous and social media are filled with stories of suicide, although the largely-state controlled media won’t report on it. As in other countries but to a greater extent, health problems aside from Covid-19 have been declared “non-essential,” and Covid-19 deaths would assuredly be far higher except for, yes, being declared Covid-19 deaths.

So what has been the impact on the nations’ economies and the epidemic?


As part of the world economy, Sweden certainly has suffered. Severely. That said, one of the major critics of Sweden’s soft touch towards Covid-19, NPR, admitted that while “It is next to impossible to say what effect, if any, the country's response had on its economy, since there are so many factors at play. It is clear, however, that the Swedish economy has fared much better during the second quarter than many other European economies.”

But as to the Philippines, “Thanks to an overly strict lockdown which shuttered up to 75% of economic activity – but still failed to halt the spread of the virus – the Philippines just posted its worst quarterly economic performance on record, with the economy shrinking 16.5% in the three months to the end of June compared to robust growth of 5.4% for the same period last year,” as Nikkei Asian Review noted last month.

And again, the lockdown continues. Not at the original level (though harsher in some ways, as with face shields), but with restaurants and other businesses not permitted to open at sustainable levels, they will continue to go out of business.

The Philippines is essentially imploding – and yet the lightest quarantine level permitted anywhere ensures that many businesses will continue to be unable to make money. Areas once packed with young people every night of the week are ghost neighborhoods. Nobody seems to even be proposing less-restrictive quarantines. So the situation can only get worse. Already months ago, over a fifth of Filipinos said they were going hungry.  The country has no “safety net” of any kind; for a while rice, canned goods, and a small amount of money was being passed down (and skimmed at each level), but President Duterte announced an end to that in August. A lack of funds was the explanation, notwithstanding that billions of dollars in foreign aid continue to pour in.


Sweden still has relatively high deaths compared to most of Europe, but its steep decline since peaking indicates that by not locking down they essentially front-loaded mortality and have induced immunity in a large portion of the population. Sweden’s death rate has recently slipped below that of the U.S. and is below the level of several European countries. As has been true in the U.S., these deaths are grossly disproportionately from homes for the elderly, for which the government has accepted responsibility – unlike in the U.S. where New York governor Andrew Cuomo has been hailed a hero.

Whatever the purpose, if lockdown advocates have suggested it, the Philippines has implemented it. As such, if locking down works anywhere to any degree then the Philippines should be as free of coronavirus as Britain is of rabies. But that’s hardly the case.

Yes, Filipino deaths are remarkably low and always have been. The median age is 23.5 years versus 41.2 for Sweden, with very little in the way of pre-existing conditions that accompany older populations and Western lifestyles. While Americans circle parking lots to get a few spaces closer to an entrance, Filipinos with their mass transportation banned have taken to walking miles to work if they’re lucky enough to still have a job. (At the same time, if Filipino deaths are so low [far below those for TB] why the never-ending lockdown?)

But cases didn’t level off until the end of July and level they remain. No decline. Swedish cases peaked in June and there are no deaths most days. Filipino deaths, low though they may be (around 20 a day) are actually somewhat higher than a few months ago. Quarantine levels haven’t been relaxed somewhat because of progress against the disease, but rather because starved bodies in the streets despite massive foreign aid is bad P.R.

Sure, it would be hard to find two countries less comparable than Sweden and the Philippines in virtually any terms you can think of. But the Philippines has also locked down much harder and longer than its neighbors in Southeast Asia, with whom it has much in common. Thus Communist Vietnam mostly unlocked in late April, yet its cases and deaths remain quite low. 

The Philippines situation is so extreme that you don’t need peer-reviewed publications with a million mathematical equations and 50 contributors to see that locking down harder, tighter, longer, while destroying the GDP and the mental and physical health of a population is no way to “combat” Covid-19, and that the lockdown advocates’ “dream” is indeed nothing short of a brutal nightmare.

"Doug MacArthur” is an expat who just left the Philippines this week.

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