High excess deaths in Sweden during the first wave of COVID-19: Policy deficiencies or ‘dry tinder’?

Silvia Rizzi*, Jes Søgaard, James W. Vaupel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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Aims: During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sweden registered a high level of excess deaths. Non-pharmaceutical interventions adopted by Sweden have been milder compared to those implemented in Denmark. Moreover, Sweden might have started the pandemic with a large proportion of vulnerable elderly with a high mortality risk. This study aimed to clarify whether excess mortality in Sweden can be explained by a large stock of ‘dry tinder’ instead of being attributed to faulty lockdown policies. Methods: We analysed weekly death counts in Sweden and Denmark from July 2007 to June 2020. We used a novel method for short-term mortality forecasting to estimate expected and excess deaths during the first COVID-19 wave in Sweden and Denmark. Results: In the first part of the epiyear 2019–2020, deaths were low in both Sweden and Denmark. In the absence of COVID-19, a relatively low level of death would be expected for the later part of the epiyear. The registered deaths were, however, way above the upper bound of the prediction interval in Sweden and within the range in Denmark. Conclusions: ‘Dry tinder’ can only account for a modest fraction of excess Swedish mortality. The risk of death during the first COVID-19 wave rose significantly for Swedish women aged >85 but only slightly for Danish women aged >85. The risk discrepancy seems more likely to result from differences between Sweden and Denmark in how care and housing for the elderly are organised, coupled with a less successful Swedish strategy of shielding the elderly.

Original languageEnglish
JournalScandinavian Journal of Public Health
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)33-37
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022


  • COVID-19
  • Denmark
  • excess deaths
  • frail elderly
  • Mortality displacement
  • non-pharmaceutical intervention policies
  • Sweden
  • Policy
  • Pandemics
  • Humans
  • Communicable Disease Control
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Female
  • Aged
  • Sweden/epidemiology


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