Sweden is betting the life of my wife’s Uncle Stig that it has a better approach to the novel coronavirus than the rest of us. 

Actually, it’s not much of a bet at the moment. While the Swedish government is defensive about its unique approach to the spread of COVID-19, in which much of what has been closed here has remained open there, including schools, it has been candid in admitting it has blown it with the protection of elderly people, especially those in rest homes.

A lot of those people are dying. 

My wife’s uncle, who is 87 and recovering from a stroke, is not in such a place. He is home in the modest-sized town of Eskilstuna, mostly alone all day except for the health care workers who come every few hours to check on him, give him medication, feed him and put him to bed. They wear masks and gloves, he told us by phone. 

But they tend to be young people, and young people tend to spend their off hours in restaurants or other places where viruses can migrate.

Why is this important for you? Because much of the Western world, including many parts of the United States, is set to slowly open in May. Sweden is betting we all catch up to them now in the death count. 

Also, because I’ve heard far too many people in casual conversation say the United States should not have shut down its economy over COVID-19. It should have let the virus run its course, taking that gamble with elderly folks. 

While it certainly wasn’t Sweden’s intention to put the elderly at risk, some people seem to view them as expendable.

Writing for the British publication, The Critic, Toby Young argued the British government was wasting money by closing down, when “the majority of people whose lives could have been saved only have one or two years left and those will not be good years.”

While acknowledging he had tested positive, was symptomatic and 56 years old, he argued economic downturns also take a toll in lives.

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Which may sound good unless you have an elderly relative you love, and whose life you definitely feel is worth preserving a while longer. It might sound reasonable until you understand that the elderly aren’t the only victims of this virus.

At the moment, the Swedish strategy of staying mostly open and asking people to voluntarily stay home and practice social distancing doesn’t seem to be working. The website worldometers.info says Sweden has a COVID-19 death rate of 244 for every 1 million people, which is far above neighboring Norway’s rate of 38 and even the U.S. rate of 181. 

Some observers say Sweden’s number might be even worse if not for its unique, self-isolating demographics. More than half the population lives alone.

But Swedish government and health leaders argue they are just taking their punishment now, while the rest of us will be taking it later, starting with this weekend.

Or, as Wolfgang Hansson, a columnist for the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, wrote this week, “Shutting down doesn’t mean the virus disappears, just that the spread of infections temporarily is reduced.”

As soon as you open society back up, the thinking goes, the virus will continue its inevitable destruction, stopping only when enough people have contracted it, or when an effective vaccine becomes available.

I wrote about Uncle Stig last summer after my wife, son and I, while visiting him, tried to get medical care as he suffered a seizure. It took 15 minutes after I spoke with an emergency dispatcher before an ambulance came. 

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The vaunted Swedish health care system is not without its problems and challenges, which ought to inform any debate here over socialized medicine.

Still, any critic has to acknowledge that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says Sweden has among the best cancer and heart attack survival rates in Europe and that life expectancy, at 82.2 years, is higher than the European average and well above the 78.7 years in the U.S.

Nor has the coronavirus overwhelmed the Swedish hospitals.

But, despite some confusing denials and statements from official sources, Sweden’s approach to COVID-19 is based on a premise that so far is unproven — that once you survive the virus, you can’t get sick again. While the rest of us will face a second wave of new illnesses after opening up, the thinking goes, Sweden will have a sort of herd immunity.

But as Hansson, the Swedish columnist, summarized succinctly and, where my wife’s uncle is concerned, coldly, it is a gamble whose outcome won’t be known for a while. 

“The difficult thing is that no one can know in advance which way is best,” he wrote. “We will get that answer first after the pandemic, when we can accurately analyze the numbers of dead, severely ill and infected. By then it will actually be too late.”