by Dr Oliver Robinson
Finland has not implemented a lockdown at any point during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, compared with its neighbour Sweden, which has been in the constant media spotlight for its lack of lockdowns, Finland’s avoidance of them has gone largely unacknowledged.
The measures that Finland has imposed have not come close to the OECD definition of a lockdown (i.e., stay at home order plus school closures of non-essential business/venue closures). Finland has never implemented a stay-at-home order, or a limit on household mixing or any restriction on travel within the country, just non-binding guidance. So, what interventions did the Finnish Government make? From March to May 2020, schools were closed, public meetings were limited to 10 people, borders were shut and citizens returning from abroad were put into quarantine. Guidance was given to people with symptoms to stay at home, and over-70s were requested to avoid social contact unless essential (this last measure is notably similar to the Great Barrington Declaration’s proposed approach of ‘focused protection’). On June 1st, the number of people allowed to meet was increased to 50 and public indoor places were opened gradually. Since then, various selective international travel restrictions have been imposed.
According to the Blavatnik School of Government’s COVID-19 Response Tracker, Finland’s response to COVID-19 was marginally stricter than Sweden from March to early April 2020, then the same level of strictness from April to May, then less strict than Sweden, something which remains true to this day. You can check for yourself here.
So how has Finland done in terms of health outcomes during the pandemic? Exceptionally well. In terms of mortality, Finland has the second lowest Covid deaths per million in the whole of Europe. Its excess deaths statistics have never increased above of the normal range, as you can see in the below graph, which covers the beginning of 2020 to February 2021. England is shown as a comparison.
What’s the explanation? Is it down to low population density? Unlikely. Finland may be a large country with a small population, but over 85% of its population lives in towns and cities, where opportunity for viral transmission is the same as in more urban areas. Furthermore, somewhat surprisingly, research shows no relationship between Covid mortality rates and population density.
How about obesity? Are Finns unusually thin? No. The obesity level is average for European countries at 22% (same as Belgium).
One factor that helped Finland may be the early border closures and border quarantine for the first few months, which research shows can be effective in the early stages of this pandemic. But this is a long way from the Zero Covid approach of New Zealand or Australia. Finland’s borders have been open to the majority of countries since May 2020.
Another factor could be Finland’s intensive focus on building public health into all aspects of Finnish life. For example, Vitamin D deficiency is a predictor of COVID-19 disease, and Finland has mandatory fortification of milk and margarine with Vitamin D. Or another more tenuous suggestion is that Finns are prolific users of saunas, and there’s some research evidence that saunas boost the immune function.
Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure: Finland is an important case study in showing that success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic is NOT a function of strict lockdowns. Finland shows that if you manage your borders properly, keep people healthy, active and social connected, and give them clear information not panic-inducing propaganda, a pandemic need not turn into a catastrophe.
Dr Oliver Robinson is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Greenwich.