What Does Social Distancing Accomplish?

Cumulative COVID-19 cases (left) and deaths (right) per million in Sweden and Denmark

In a comment on a previous post about COVID-19, John D. said that he was watching Sweden and Denmark to evaluate whether or not shutting down most of society is an effective strategy against the disease. Why? Because they are very similar countries in the same basic region of the world, but they have remarkably different responses to the disease. Denmark has instituted many social-distancing strategies against the disease, while Sweden has not. Comparing how the disease is affecting those two countries might tell us something about how effective these strategies really are.

Well, I had a chance to look into this a bit, and the results of my analysis are shown in the graphs above. I got my data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Of course, you could question the reliability of the source. However, I think that if it is not reliable, it is probably equally unreliable for both countries, so most likely, the comparison is justified. The data are compiled as a list of cases and deaths each day. I made a running day-by-day total of each and then divided by the population of each country in millions. So what you see in the graphs above are the cumulative number of cases (left) and deaths (right) each day, per million people in the country.

Looking at the graph on the left, we see that the rate of growth of cases is similar for both countries, but Sweden actually has a lower number of cases per million! So despite its social distancing guidelines, Denmark has more cases per million people than Sweden. However, look at the deaths per million, shown in the graph on the right. Not only does Sweden have significantly more deaths per million, they are increasing a lot faster than those in Denmark!

How can we understand the fact that Denmark has more cases but fewer deaths per million people? I personally think it’s because Denmark is probably testing more. Because of social distancing, doctors and hospitals are not doing a lot of the routine care they normally do. As a result, they are probably more focused on COVID-19, which probably results in more testing. It’s very possible that Sweden has a lot more cases, but since they aren’t testing as much as Denmark, that doesn’t show up. This is all just spectulation, of course. I don’t have the data to confirm whether or not Denmark is doing more testing than Sweden.

It’s also possible that less routine medical care in Denmark simply means that the people with COVID-19 are getting more medical attention, which leads to a higher rate of survival. So perhaps Sweden does have fewer cases, but since each case doesn’t get as much attention, the death rate is higher. Finally, it’s possible that because of social distancing, the sheer number of viruses to which each person is exposed is lower in Denmark. If that’s the case, the initial viral load on a patient is lower, which makes the disease more survivable.

Whatever the explanation for the fact that Denmark has more confirmed cases but fewer deaths per million, it appears that social distancing significantly reduces the number of deaths per million people in the population. Of course, I don’t think you can say that definitively based on this analysis alone, but the data do support that conclusion.

ADDED NOTE: If you look at the links in Dawn’s comment and Laree’s comment, you will see that Denmark is, indeed, doing more testing, which explains why they have more cases.

15 thoughts on “What Does Social Distancing Accomplish?”

  1. Awesome post, thank you for sharing!!! This was fascinating to read and you did a great job.
    Keep up the good work, and please stay well!!!
    – Keziah

  2. Thank you! I have been watching Sweden for this same reason and you’re graphs and explaination are most helpful.

  3. The number of COVID-19 deaths is a lot easier to count accurately than the number of COVID-19 cases. So the death rate number is more believable and accurate.

    The death rate is an indicator of how overwhelmed the hospitals and healthcare workers are. Especially in a comparison like this where the age of the population and healthcare systems are very similar between the two countries. So despite the number reported cases per million being similar, I think the death rate tells a story of “flattening the curve” and giving the health care workers enough slack that they can save more people’s lives.

    The shutdown saved lives.

      1. What is your point in saying I made “unsubstantiated statements” without saying which ones you think lack substance, and why you think they are unsubstantiated?

  4. With all due respect, I’d just like to point out that an analysis like this only considers what social distancing accomplishes in the present. One argument for Sweden’s approach is that they are accepting a short term cost for a long term gain. It is possible — and time will tell — that the Swedish population develops a herd immunity to this virus far more quickly than other countries. If there are second and third waves of this virus, at that time Sweden may suffer both fewer cases and fewer deaths compared to many other countries.

    1. Exactly. We only know as far as the right side of the graph. If Sweden’s deaths top out and then drop to virtually nil, and Denmark eventually gets to Sweden’s high, but then just keeps the deaths trickling and growing over months, years, it will look VERY different. We have far too few numbers to make any determinations right now. By July/August, I would not be at all surprised to see the vast majority of the world looking at Sweden and South Korea, wishing they’d gone that way.

  5. Thank you for posting this! The two countries do present a good opportunity for side by side analysis. They have so much in common (even the median age is 40 in both countries and both countries age distribution is roughly 17/60/20 young, middle aged, old). However the one area they are different is in their overall population.

    Denmark has a population of 5,787,830 whereas Sweden has a population of 10,085,673.

    There have so far been 919 deaths in Sweden vs 285 in Denmark (so roughly 900 to 500 if you adjust for inflation) The question we should be asking is if social distancing costs outweigh the risks. Do 400 preventable Covid Deaths warrant closing society. (Or 1,000?, 2,000?) In 2017 Flu deaths in Sweden amounted to 3,589. Suppose we could cut that in half every year by completely closing society – do we?

    Another factor to consider is the vector of infection applied to the population.

    To get an idea of how the population distribution looks in each country here are the 5 most populous cities in each country.

    Copenhagen – 1,153,615
    Århus – 237,551
    Odense – 145,931
    Aalborg – 122,219
    Esbjerg – 72,168

    Stockholm – 1,515,017
    Gothenburg – 599,011
    Malmö – 316,588
    Uppsala – 160,462
    Upplands Väsby and Sollentuna – 144,826.

    If you apply the same virulent exponentiality to two different sized populations then you undoubtedly end up with seemingly weighted results in the larger population. If you apply an effective suppressant to the smaller of these populations then that discrepancy should be drastic. I’m not seeing that as of yet. I don’t know that Denmarks numbers would be so drastically different if they took Swedens approach.

    Time will tell if that remains the case.

  6. You might also want to look at Finland, which has markedly different results than Denmark has. (Norway’s results are pretty similar to Denmark in both cases and deaths.)

    The Worldometers site mentioned above has a vast amount of information, including both totals per country and per million, and you can click on most of the countries and get more details. It also has charts both linear and logarithmic, and you can see state by state in the US.

  7. I’ve read so many articles that I’m frustrated. Also I’ve watched a wide variety of videos, listened to the experts argue. I have come to the conclusion that Dr. Fauci, is blowing smoke to further his personal beliefs. No matter what model they use, we won’t know if any of them are correct until it’s over. There isn’t enough tests and doctors are being selective. In my opinion we need to put everyone back to work and use common sense.

  8. I don’t think that Covid deaths themselves are very good metric. I think a better metric is overall mortality due to the differences in how people count Covid deaths. This leak will give you an idea of how much mortality has changes as a result of COVID.https://www.euromomo.eu/outputs/zscore_country_total.html?fbclid=IwAR3pj89XIDW0Xdr2RkVGBxJ7ljHPo-pledQtT1cadYjVLulObjH4O0_i5bM The link covers the last 4 years so you can see how this compares to past years as well.

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