Sweden has recorded its highest death toll since a famine swept through the country 150 years ago

The state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden at a news conference on July 30 in Stockholm. Getty

After refusing to implement a full coronavirus lockdown, Sweden in the first half of this year recorded its highest death toll of any comparable period in the past 150 years.

Sweden recorded 51,405 deaths from January to June, according to Statistics Office figures reported by Reuters.

That was its highest death toll over that six-month period since 1869, when the country was dealing with a famine that started two years earlier; 55,431 Swedes died in that period.

Sweden’s death toll was 10% higher than its average over the past five years, Reuters reported. There was a spike in April, when deaths were 40% higher than the average.

Sweden’s coronavirus response has attracted global attention because – unlike in many countries – its government never implemented strict lockdown measures in response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. Instead, it allowed shops, bars, and restaurants to remain largely open and students to attend school.

Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is widely credited as the architect of the country’s response to the pandemic, justified Sweden’s response by saying countries that imposed strict lockdowns would most likely suffer large second waves later in the year, whereas Sweden’s would be smaller.

Tegnell suggested that by opting against a strict lockdown, Sweden might be able to achieve herd immunity – the theory that a virus will run out of hosts in a population once enough people have been infected and developed immunity.

In April, he predicted that by May 40% of people in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, would develop coronavirus antibodies that might contribute toward COVID-19 immunity – though it is still unclear to what extent antibodies provide long-term immunity to the virus. A recent study carried out by University College London estimated that a significantly smaller percentage of people in Stockholm – 17% – had developed antibodies by around that time.

As of Thursday morning, Sweden had reported 5,802 deaths of people who had caught the coronavirus.

This is significantly higher compared with Sweden’s Nordic neighbours. Norway had reported 262 coronavirus deaths as of Thursday, while Finland reported 334. It is also one of the world’s worst affected countries in terms of coronavirus deaths per capita.