Finland

Russia’s Muted Response to Finland’s Interest in Joining NATO Suggests its Invasion of Ukraine Was Nothing to do With NATO Expansion

After some weeks of national polling, discussion and debate, and following Wednesday’s signing of bilateral security agreements with the U.K., it now looks all-but-certain that Finland and Sweden will apply to join NATO – perhaps as early as next week – and that if they do, they will be welcomed with open arms, swelling the ranks of the alliance to 32 members.

But Finland sits directly on Russia’s western border.

Indeed, amongst European nations, Finland has the dubious distinction of possessing the second-longest land border with Russia – second only to Ukraine’s. So why hasn’t this expected eastward expansion of NATO been greeted with the same hand-wringing from those in the West, and the same threats from Russia that we’ve seen in past years with respect to Ukraine’s “provocative” ambition to join NATO?

The reason is that NATO’s eastward expansion was never viewed by Russia as an existential threat – at least not militarily. In fact, the factitious and pretextual nature of Russia’s claimed fears over Ukraine’s closer ties to NATO couldn’t be clearer: on April 8th, Dmitry Peskov repeated Russia’s long-held position that if Finland and Sweden were to join NATO, this would be a threat but not an existential threat. His remarks were repeated by RT in a clear confirmation of the official line:

Moscow opposes the expansion of NATO, but the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the bloc won’t become an existential threat to it, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told Sky News on Friday.

Covid Vaccines Increase Risk of Severe Heart Inflammation Up to 120-Fold, Major Study Finds

Covid vaccination increases the risk of severe heart inflammation up to 120-fold, a major study from Scandinavia published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has found.

The study looked at over 23 million patient records covering the over-12s populations of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden from the start of the vaccine rollout in December 2020 to October 5th 2021.

For young males aged 16-24 years within 28 days of a second dose the study found severe myocarditis (requiring inpatient hospital admission) around five times more common after Pfizer and 14 times more common after Moderna. This corresponded to six events per 100,000 people after Pfizer and 18 events per 100,000 after Moderna. A second dose of Moderna given after a first dose of Pfizer came with even higher risk: a 36-fold increased risk, corresponding to 27 events per 100,000 people. The Moderna vaccine has three times the dose of mRNA of the Pfizer vaccine, which the authors suggest lies behind the increased risk.

Norway Ends Covid Restrictions Including Self-Isolation Requirement Despite Omicron Surge

Norway scrapped almost all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday morning, doing away with its self-isolation and face mask requirements, ending social distancing, and limiting testing to those with symptoms, despite being in the middle of its Omicron surge, which has not yet begun to fall. The Local has the story.

“The one-metre rule is disappearing. We are taking away the recommendation on social distancing,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told reporters at a press conference.

“Now we can now socialise like we did before, in nightlife, at cultural events and other social occasions. And on the way to and from work on buses, trains and ferries,” he said.

Norway’s decision to lift restrictions comes four days after Sweden lifted its restrictions on Wednesday, and twelve days after Denmark did on February 1st. 

Støre put the change in restrictions to the shift in infections towards the milder Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. 

“We can ease the restrictions because Omicron does not cause as serious disease as previous variants. Even though the infection rate is rising, the proportion who end up in hospital is low. We are well protected with the vaccine,” he said. “We can treat COVID-19 like other diseases.” 

Among the changes, which apply from 10am on Saturday morning, are:  

• The one-metre rule is abolished 
• The requirement to wear face masks is abolished 
• Only adults with symptoms are now advised to get tested for COVID-19 
• The requirement to self-isolate for four days has been downgraded to a recommendation
• Kindergarten children and school pupils should stay home if ill, but can return after one fever-free day 
• All remaining requirements to show a negative test on arrival at the Norwegian border have been scrapped

Those who are unable or unwilling to get vaccinated and those in vulnerable groups are still recommended to wear face masks. 

Under the new testing requirements, those who test positive using an antigen or lateral flow test at home are asked to register the positive test in their local municipality’s infection tracking system. 

Gahr Støre stressed however that “the pandemic is not over”, and advised unvaccinated people and those in risk groups to continue practising social distancing and wear masks where social distancing is not possible.

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI) said the country had yet to see the peak of the Omicron surge, but it was expected soon.

The agency’s director Camilla Stoltenberg told reporters the number of Covid hospitalisations had risen by 40% in the past week.

Sweden to End Restrictions as Health Agency Declares COVID-19 “No Longer a Danger to Society”

Sweden is to lift almost all its Covid restrictions, the Government has announced.

The country, famed for refusing to impose a lockdown, ban gatherings or close schools and businesses in spring 2020, has become one of the stricter countries for Covid restrictions in recent months. But now the Government has announced that almost all its current restrictions will be removed on Wednesday, February 9th.

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said:

The pandemic is not over, but is entering a completely new phase. We are nearing the point for Sweden to open up again…

There are multiple international studies of a milder illness, and the data we have from Sweden paints the same picture. The rate of vaccination in Sweden has been high in recent weeks, this means we can open up society, at least for all who have been vaccinated.

The comment “at least for all who have been vaccinated” is ominous, but I am told by contacts in the country that there are “no checks anywhere, so nobody knows if you’re actually vaccinated or not in public settings”.

The announcement comes as the Public Health Agency said COVID-19 should no longer be classified as an illness presenting a danger to society. The agency has sent a request to the Government to reclassify the illness, and Health Minister Lena Hallengren said this could be approved by the end of March.

Ministers do not appear to be fully signed up to this idea yet, however, as Hallengren said that “in order to prevent a new wave, the return to work and school [university] should occur successively”. If the disease is no longer a danger to society, why worry about a new wave?

Here is a list of the restrictions currently in force that will be removed next week – the most depressing aspect of which is how numerous and petty they are. Poor Sweden, how far you have fallen from being our sceptical hero! Notably absent from the press conference was State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who had doggedly stuck to pre-Covid evidence-based protocols rather than join in the panic. Despite what the Prime Minister said, the list appears to include the lifting of most of the vaccine passport requirements. The restrictions to be lifted are:

Panic Over? Finland to Lift All Covid Restrictions Despite Being in Deadliest Phase of Pandemic

Finland is to remove all Covid restrictions in February, Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced on Monday. Yle News has more.

Following decisions reached last week, some Covid-related restrictions are to be eased this week.

Starting on Tuesday, February 1st, establishments that primarily serve food will be allowed to stay open until 9pm. But, establishments that mainly serve alcoholic beverages will still be required to stop alcohol sales at 5pm and shut down for the day at 6pm.

Restaurants will be able to retain the right to require Covid passes from customers as a condition of admission. On the other hand, use of the passes will not exempt restaurants from restrictions on alcohol sales and opening hours, at least until mid-February.

Public gyms and swimming pools in the Uusimaa region will also be permitted to operate starting on Tuesday.

Starting on Tuesday, regulations at Finland’s borders for passengers arriving from Schengen Area countries as well as non-Schengen EU member states will be lifted.

It follows Denmark’s move to repeal all pandemic laws as of February 1st and return to “life as we knew it“, having determined COVID-19 is no longer “a threatening disease for society”. The question is, why is Finland going slowly, if it, too, has determined the pandemic is over? The extent to which Finland follows through with full repeal will become clear in the coming weeks.

Perhaps the slower place is because Finland is currently experiencing some of its highest levels of infections, hospitalisations and deaths to date. Test positivity is at its highest, though appears to have stopped rising.

Finnish Epidemiologist: The IFR of the Omicron Variant is 0.04%, About Half That of Seasonal Flu

The Danish Government report released on January 3rd 2022 states: 

Until Sunday December 19th 2021 nearly all positive SARS-CoV-2 samples were tested with variant PCR to identify Omicron cases. As of Monday December 20th 2021 only a representative sample of the positive SARS-CoV-2 samples are being tested with variant PCR at TCDK, hence, the number of identified Omicron cases does not represent the total number of Omicron cases in Denmark. In the Clinical Microbiological Departments, the PCR samples are from hospitalised patients prioritised to be variant PCR tested.

The report gives a very conservative estimate of the cumulative number of omicron cases by January 2nd, which is 55,673, because the Danish authorities stopped sequencing all COVID-19 positive cases on December 20th. Since then, as stated above, only a daily random sample has been sequenced to see the proportion of Omicron cases in the population. When I use this daily proportion starting from December 20th and multiply it by the daily number of all SARS-CoV-2 positive test results and subtract the number of the daily established Omicron cases I can get a reliable estimate of the true number of cumulative Omicron cases on January 2nd, which is 143,237. From December 29th onwards until January 2nd I assumed that 90% of COVID-19 diagnoses were the Omicron variant. 

The median length of time from COVID-19 diagnosis to hospitalisation and death is about six and 13 days respectively. Until Dec 19th all COVID-19 PCR diagnoses were sequenced and the cumulative number of Omicron cases can be summed since November 21st. On December 20th the number of Omicron cases can be calculated by multiplying total number of COVID-19 cases by the pro-portion of Omicron cases in the representative sample. By December 20th, i.e., 13 days prior to January 2nd, the cumulative number of omicron cases was 43,200. As median means that 50% of deaths have accumulated by January the 2nd among the 43,200 I further assume that in this 43,200 fixed cohort another 18 will die after January the 2nd.

Thus I can calculate an estimate Omicron case fatality rate (CFR) in this fixed cohort, which is 36/43,200 = 0.08%, which corresponds roughly to that of seasonal flu’s mortality rate. When further I assume that only half of the true COVID-19 infections are diagnosed, which is a reasonable assumption for many reasons, I get an Omicron infection fatality rate (IFR) of 0.04 % indicating very low lethality. My calculations are conservative.

Since January 2nd until January the 11th there have been an additional 140,270 infections, assuming conservatively that 90% of new cases are Omicron variant cases. Fewer people are classified into the severe category of whom 44 (three fewer than on January the 2nd) were on ventilators as of today. The expected number of additional deaths among the accumulated Omicron cases 289,507 by January the 11th is 214. It is interesting to note that less than five of ICU patients, i.e., one in twenty in Denmark on January the 2nd, were Omicron patients.

It is possible that my CFR and IFR estimates are affected by the fact that Omicron cases have been especially prevalent among younger people. However, a recent Danish paper indicates that boosted patients, i.e., thrice vaccinated individuals, prevent secondary Omicron transmission effectively. Older age groups in Denmark are well protected with booster shots, which also protect them against severe disease. Thus, the observed low Omicron mortality in Denmark is attributable to very likely lower pathogenicity of Omicron variant itself and favourable effects of mass vaccination.

We will get an accurate final CFR estimates from Denmark very soon as the Omicron status is known for all hospitalised patients. Already by now we can with great confidence deduce that the Omicron variant is at least 16 times less lethal in a highly vaccinated population than the SARS-COV-2 variant circulating in spring 2020 in Europe and the world.

The most important issue related to very fast spreading Omicron is how it affects the labour force in short term. In South Africa, the Omicron wave peaked rapidly and lasted around two months. 

Mikko Paunio is an adjunct professor in epidemiology at the University of Helsinki, Department of Public Health, and an advisor to the Finnish Government. 

Stop Press: The Danish Government has just announced the easing of restrictions at the end of this week, having concluded that Omicron is a lot milder than previous variants.

“We Have to Compare Sweden to Its Neighbours” Isn’t a Convincing Argument

In a recent post on Lockdown Sceptics, I argued that the case for lockdown basically collapsed in May of 2020, when Sweden’s epidemic began to retreat. Sweden was the only major Western country that didn’t lockdown in 2020, yet it saw age-adjusted excess mortality up to week 51 of just 1.7% – below the European average.

A common reply is that, although Sweden did better than the European average, it did worse than its neighbours. Here its neighbours are taken to be the other Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Looking at age-adjusted excess mortality, it’s true that the other Nordics did better than Sweden. All four saw negative excess mortality up to week 51.

Does this mean lockdown sceptics are wrong to cite Sweden as evidence that the benefits of lockdowns are vastly overstated? No, I don’t believe it does.

First, the economist Daniel Klein and his colleagues have identified 15 different factors that may account for the higher death toll in Sweden as compared to the other Nordics. These include the greater number of frail elderly people alive at the start of 2020 (the ‘dry tinder’ effect); the larger immigrant population; and the lack of adequate protection for care home residents in the early weeks of the pandemic. 

Second, as the researcher Philippe Lemoine has pointed out, the epidemic was already more advanced in Sweden by the time most European countries introduced lockdowns and social distancing. The other Nordic countries therefore had a head start in responding to the deadly first wave. This is particularly important because, when the first wave struck, the best ways of treating COVID-19 were not yet well understood.

I would add that, with the exception of Denmark (which saw a moderate second wave), the other Nordics are small, geographically peripheral countries for which a containment strategy was actually workable. As I’ve noted in Quillette, all the Western countries that have managed to keep their COVID-19 death rates low (Norway, Cyprus, Australia, etc.) benefited from pre-existing geographical advantages. And all imposed strict border controls at the start (something the UK Government’s scientific advisers cautioned against).

Third, as the legal scholar Paul Yowell has argued, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are similar to the Nordics in terms of climate and population density, and once you include them in the comparison, Sweden no longer stands out. Lithuania actually had higher age-adjusted excess mortality than Sweden last year, despite imposing a strict winter lockdown.

Finally, as Yowell also points out, the ratio of Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate to Denmark’s isn’t that much higher than the ratio of Denmark’s to Finland’s. And this is despite the fact that Denmark has taken a more restrictive approach than Finland. One could therefore take the comparison between those two countries as evidence against the efficacy of lockdowns.

What’s more, this exercise could be repeated with other pairs or trios. For example, despite taking a slightly less restrictive approach than Spain and Italy, France has reported fewer deaths from COVID-19 (as well as lower excess mortality). Of course, these kinds of comparisons don’t tell us very much. But that’s the point. We shouldn’t only compare a country to its immediate neighbours.

And when researchers have analysed European countries and US states in a systematic way, they haven’t found evidence that lockdowns substantially reduce deaths from COVID-19.

Sweden Had Lower Excess Mortality Last Year Than Most of Europe

According to new excess mortality data compiled by Eurostat and Reuters, Sweden emerged from 2020 with a smaller increase in its overall mortality rate than most European countries in spite of eschewing the lockdown policy. Reuters has more.

Preliminary data from EU statistics agency Eurostat compiled by Reuters showed Sweden had 7.7% more deaths in 2020 than its average for the preceding four years. Countries that opted for several periods of strict lockdowns, such as Spain and Belgium, had so-called excess mortality of 18.1% and 16.2% respectively.

Twenty-one of the 30 countries with available statistics had higher excess mortality than Sweden. However, Sweden did much worse than its Nordic neighbours, with Denmark registering just 1.5% excess mortality and Finland 1.0%. Norway had no excess mortality at all in 2020.

Sweden’s excess mortality also came out at the low end of the spectrum in a separate tally of Eurostat and other data released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics last week.

That analysis, which included an adjustment to account for differences in both the age structures and seasonal mortality patterns of countries analysed, placed Sweden 18th in a ranking of 26. Poland, Spain and Belgium were at the top.

Lockdown enthusiasts often point to the lower excess mortality in the other Nordic countries, implying that had Sweden locked down it would have had even lower excess mortality. Against this, two things can be said. The first is the point made by Dr Paul Yowell which is that if you include the Baltic states among Sweden’s neighbours – and there is no non-arbitrary reason for not doing so – Sweden’s excess mortality begins to look less atypical for the region. The second is the argument made by Dr Oliver Robinson which is that Finland itself didn’t lock down, so pointing to Finland’s lower excess mortality than Sweden’s is not an argument in favour of lockdown.

The Reuters piece is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: MailOnline has summarised the Reuters story here.

The Other Sweden

We’ve heard a lot about Sweden over the past year, but according to Dr Oliver Robinson Sweden isn’t the only ‘control’ that invalidates the lockdown experiment. We’ve been neglecting Finland. In an original piece for Lockdown Sceptics, the Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Greenwich points out that Finland has had the second lowest Covid death rate in Europe, yet, like Sweden, it avoided locking down.

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.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Dr Paul Yowell, an Associate Law Professor at Oxford, has written a fascinating blog post in which he points out that Sweden hasn’t fared badly compared to its neighbours – an argument often made by lockdown enthusiasts – provided you count Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania among those neighbours. “Once you include the Baltic countries (lying immediately south of Finland) in the geographic comparison, Sweden is no longer an outlier in mortality comparisons,” he writes.

Finland: The Covid Success Story No-One is Talking About

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.

(Euromomo)

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.