Europe’s COVID-19 Pandemic In Data – Case Counts, Mortality & Testing Rates
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test for the virus that causes COVID-19 respiratory disease, SARS-CoV-2.

With COVID-19 pandemic curves beginning to flatten out in many parts of the Europe, Health Policy Watch presents a snapshot of infection and death trends in WHO’s European region through graphs that tell the story, using up-to-date data from the COVID-19 tracker of the Geneva-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND).

Notably, some striking, but little discussed, differences in deaths, disease incidence and rates of testing exist among Switzerland, Czechia, Denmark, Norway and Sweden – countries with similar population sizes and age demographics, quality health systems and high development indices.While a great deal of attention has been focused on the situations faced by Europe’s big powers, including the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Spain, on the one hand, and Germany on the other, trends in these smaller, central and northern European countries are also revealing -with death rates in Czechia particularly low, followed by Norway and Denmark.

While it will take more time and expert review to etch out the basket of policies that worked best together, the snapshot of trends is suggestive of questions that will have to be asked and the mix of policies that may or may not be most effective.

The lesson in the data seems to indicate that there is no one policy that works on its own, but rather an integrated package  – as the World Health Organization has long stated. And countries that test more and test earlier have better curbed the spread of the virus, as well as deaths resulting from COVID-19 infection.

See below the three key indicators in data: death rate, testing and number of reported COVID-19 cases. Note these are presented in per million,  to make comparisons more equal.

Death Rates – The Ultimate Indicator
(HPW/Svĕt Lustig): Sweden’s death rate due to COVID-19 is much higher than Norway and Denmark. Based on national data collected by FIND (, 20 April, 2020.

Death rates, if reported accurately, are the ultimate indicator of a country’s outbreak response policies – at least among countries with similar age demographics and underlying health conditions. Death rates can be seen to reflect the success of the whole range of measures taken, including testing and contact tracing and the quality of hospital care as well as physical distancing through quarantines and lockdown measures.

Whatever the combination of policies that worked and did not, it remains striking that deaths, per capita, have been much higher in Switzerland and Sweden as compared to Denmark, Norway and Czechia, which also tested more aggressively in the early days.

Denmark, Norway, and Czechia also cancelled mass events, closed leisure facilities and restaurants for dining, adopting strict social distancing measures comparatively early on in the initial epidemic surge, while Switzerland took those same measures more gradually and comparatively later in its outbreak, which began to spill over from Italy already in late February.

Czechia closed its borders early on, and ordered universal masking of its citizens. So did Czechia’s extraordinary measures keep its case load and death rates particularly low? And on the other hand, could it be that Norway’s more aggressive testing policies, also helped contribute to significantly lower mortality trends, much in the spirit of WHO’s admonition to “test, test, test”?

Sweden, which experienced relatively higher mortality, left most restaurants and shopping malls open throughout. Sweden’s ‘voluntary’ physical distancing measures were also much milder than those adopted in Norway and Denmark.

Israel, also a member of WHO’s European Region, is another country with very low death rates comparable to Czechia’s. Like Czechia, Israel adopted strict social distancing, quarantine and travel restrictions early on, although experts have also attributed the low death rate to the country’s comparatively younger population – an average age of about 30 as compared to 40-something averages of the the central and northern European countries featured here.

Countries That “Test, Test, Test” Can Reduce Death Rates – But Follow-Up Also Essential

WHO has stressed that testing lies at the heart of containing infectious disease outbreaks and helps save lives by allowing authorities to trace and isolate infected people accordingly.

All countries should be able to test all suspected cases, they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded, they should know where the cases are, and that is how they can take decisions,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has stated repeatedly at WHO’s COVID-19 press briefings.

In Scandinavia, Sweden has lagged far behind Norway and Denmark in implementing widespread COVID-19 testing, a key World Health Organization-COVID-19 control strategy. Sweden has paid the price of low testing with significantly higher death rates.

Norway, on the other hand, has been the European country that consistently tested the most, from the early days of the epidemic until now. Norway’s testing rates were three times more than those in Sweden, while Norway’s deaths were only about one-fifth of its next-door neighbor. Denmark also tested twice as much as Sweden, while its death rate was less than half.
Switzerland has also tested more aggressively than any other country, just behind Norway. Despite having one of the highest ratios of cases, per capita, its death rate has been almost the same as Sweden. Once again, differences in testing may help explain these trends, as testing can help in case identification and reporting that reduces mortality. There are signs that Sweden has come to this conclusion too. The country plans to expand testing now by a factor of six to 100 000 tests a week, targeting ‘key roles’, such as policemen, firefighters, and healthcare workers, said Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren last Friday at a press conference
(HPW/Svĕt Lustig): Sweden focused less on testing than its neighbors. Based on national data collected by FIND (, 22 April, 2020.
But testing is merely the first step in an outbreak response, public health experts have stressed.

Testing is a hugely important central piece of surveillance, but we need to train hundreds or thousands of contact tracers [to follow up on positive cases and contacts]. We need to be able to find cases, we need to be able to isolate cases who were confirmed,” said WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies Mike Ryan. 

In Norway and Denmark, the widespread availability of testing as part of a comprehensive ‘package’ of policies, has allowed authorities to quickly identify and quarantine people to effectively reduce deaths – although again, these measures were also accompanied by quarantines and physical distancing.

Drop-in testing clinic outside a health clinic in the ultra-orthodox city of Bnei Brak – one of Israel’s virus hotspots

Norway and Denmark are not the only European countries that have seen the fruits of testing.  Despite being hit by heavy waves of cases from Italy and France, Switzerland has had comparatively high testing, which could have helped fend off an even wider outbreak as it faced the onslaught of cases imported from Italy, which was Europe’s virus epicenter.

“Testing is important in fighting COVID-19. Switzerland is testing more and more”, said Swiss Federal Councillor Alain Berset, in a tweet in late March.

Israel has also ramped up testing capacity recently to one of the highest in Europe – aggressive testing along with precision case tracking and isolation has been viewed by experts there as key to “lockdown exit” strategies – and its army has even taken on a central role, mapping disease incidence house by house in the most heavily infected, ultra-orthodox towns and neighborhoods.

Case Rates Per Capita Across Europe
(HPW/Svĕt Lustig): Sweden, Denmark and Norway have similar case numbers. Based on national data collected by FIND (, 20 April, 2020.

Experts have warned that reported cases may not reflect the true picture of disease spread – due to the very different rates in testing that countries have practiced.  Strikingly, Switzerland has one of the highest numbers of reported cases, per capita, in Europe, outpacing even those of neighboring Italy and double those of Sweden. However as one of the countries testing most aggressively, it may be that Switzerland has also simply been more diligent about case tracking and reporting, while cases that passed under the wire elsewhere. In light of its high case rate, the comparatively lower mortality may be a qualified success.

Clearly, however, Switzerland’s proximity to Italy and France, as well as the fact that lockdown measures may have been implemented later in the epidemic surge than in the other countries noted here, may have also played a role in high case incidence.

Czechia Gets The Highest Marks Across The Board – So Far
Homemade mask production for members of the public have become a big part of Czechia’s containment strategy.

At the very other end of the scale, Czechia has reported the lowest number of cases, per capita. And while Czechia’s testing rates are not as high as other countries like Israel or Norway, Czechia also has one of the lowest mortality rates in Europe.

Strikingly, it is also one of the few countries in Europe that has made mask use mandatory in public spaces from the early days. Is it possible that along with the travel restrictions and lockdown measures, widespread and mandatory mask use helped Czechia slash the number of infected people to a minimum, as well as the death rate resulting from the disease?

Given that the Czech public was widely engaged in home-fashioned mask making, it is also likely that priority populations like healthcare workers did not lack access to masks. Last week, Czechia began lifting its lockdown.

Image Credits: Mehr News Agency, Israel Ministry of Health, Pavlina Fojtikova.

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