In a given country, the cumulative death toll of the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic follows a sigmoid curve as a function of time. In most cases, the curve is well described by the Gompertz function, which is characterized by two essential parameters, the initial growth rate and the decay rate as the first epidemic wave subsides. These parameters are determined by socioeconomic factors and the countermeasures to halt the epidemic. The Gompertz model implies that the total death toll depends exponentially, and hence very sensitively, on the ratio between these rates. The remarkably different epidemic curves for the first epidemic wave in Sweden and Norway and many other countries are classified and discussed in this framework, and their usefulness for the planning of mitigation strategies is discussed.