Denmark’s Weapons Against COVID-19: Early Action, High Trust—and a No-Nonsense Queen
Photo by Ethan Hu on Unsplash

Denmark’s Weapons Against COVID-19: Early Action, High Trust—and a No-Nonsense Queen

Kay Xander Mellish
Kay Xander Mellish
6 min read

It’s early spring in Denmark, a welcome relief after months of murky, rainy darkness. Even Copenhagen’s less-affluent districts are covered with carpets of blue wildflowers.

It’s also the third week of the country’s coronavirus quarantine, in which Denmark became one of the first countries in Europe to shut its schools and send most public employees home. On March 14th, it was among the first to close its borders entirely.

Other than going to work, shopping for non-essentials and dining out, the Danes are doing much of what they would otherwise be doing during spring’s chilly opening act. They are bicycling, sailing, taking nature walks, and gardening. Parents of three- and four-year-olds are teaching them how to ride a bicycle by sticking a broom through the seat support and guiding them along the sidewalks.

And there is always plenty of spring housework—for everyone. (Danish men do more housework than any of their OECD counterparts.) This includes airing out the feather quilts after the long winter, filling up the window boxes with spring flowers, and embarking on the endless home-improvement projects that Danes adore. Wealthier Danes also spend time in their summer houses, where they do the same things all over again.

The worst-case coronavirus scenario is as terrifying in Denmark as it is everywhere else. There is no guarantee that the Danish health system will have the resources to help everyone who needs care. And the economy might be in tatters when the quarantine ends. But for now, there is a certain pleasure in watching the gentle social machinery of the Danish state and people swing into action. At the lakes in downtown Copenhagen—the city’s former moat—kindly city employees in safety vests make sure everyone runs or strolls in a clockwise direction, minimizing the chance of close face-to-face encounters.

The Danish police sent a friendly message to every mobile telephone in the country, reminding recipients to practice social distancing as you “enjoy your weekend.” And Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen made an appearance on the Instagram account of Denmark’s top Gen-Z influencer, Anders Hemmingsen. She empathized with teens’ desire to go out and party, but encouraged them to stay home and tolerate their parents for a little longer.

Frederiksen, a 42-year-old divorced mother of two school-aged children, was initially accused of overreacting to the pandemic. As it turned out, she was out ahead of many other countries in Europe, which generally adopted similar measures after delays of days or weeks.

The first confirmed case in Denmark was on February 27th. Within eight days, Frederiksen had restricted all gatherings to a maximum of 1,000 people, which meant cancelling a number of highly anticipated sports and music events. (The 1980s-era band Simple Minds, having sold 1,500 tickets to a 40th anniversary show, split its local crowd in half, and generously played two separate concerts.) On March 11th, the number permitted to gather was cut to 100; and on March 18th, it went down to 10. Libraries, museums, gyms, and state churches were closed. Few cared about the churches, but there was a great deal of anguish about the gyms.

When the borders were closed, the grumbling about overreaction increased, particularly among commuters who live in less-expensive Sweden and travel across the Øresund Bridge for work in higher-salary Denmark. (The bridge is still open to freight and to Danes, but not to most Swedes.) Sweden, which has taken a more laissez-faire approach to coronavirus, harrumphed about the insult to Scandinavian solidarity and European unity; and a top Swedish health official said the border closing “could not be justified from a health perspective.” Five days later, Sweden closed its own borders. Although Sweden’s closure applied only to visitors from non-EU countries, this was a big step for a country the Danes mock ceaselessly for its preternatural political correctness.

Danes themselves have never been particularly hobbled by political correctness. Indeed, this is a country that still indexes published unemployment statistics according to residents’ country of origin. And early during the coronavirus saga, a Danish newspaper—the same one that enraged parts of the Muslim world in 2005 with a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad—published a cartoon of the Chinese flag in which each star had been replaced by a tiny coronavirus symbol. An army of Chinese internet trolls swiftly descended on Danish websites. The local Chinese ambassador called it an “insult to China,” and demanded that the newspaper and cartoonist “publicly apologize to the Chinese people.”

Denmark has only a small Chinese community, but it is a huge destination for Chinese visitors, many of whom grew up on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. These tourists pump millions of kroner into the national economy. The Copenhagen hotel sector, in the midst of a building boom that had been expected to expand capacity by 40 percent between 2018 and 2021, was particularly vulnerable to a boycott, even before coronavirus swept Europe. But Frederiksen, who had been in office only about six months at the time, stood firm. “We have a strong tradition of freedom of expression in Denmark, and that includes satirical drawings,” she told a journalist. “That’s not going to change.”

Of late, Frederiksen has been looking tired as she provides her regular updates from the parliament at Christiansborg, where her Social Democratic party must find allies among more than 10 squabbling smaller parties to get legislation approved. Still, her government has been able to quickly pass a massive stimulus program with separate aid packages for big companies and smaller firms and freelancers. To avoid mass layoffs, big companies can get grants for 75 percent of the salary of each employee they retain. The package for small companies and freelancers allows them to put off paying taxes and get preferred access to loans. For people already unemployed, unemployment benefits will be extended.

It helps that the Danish society is still characterized by high levels of trust—including trust in their government. It is one of the least corrupt nations on Earth, a fact that helps make citizens more willing to pay their (extremely high) taxes. Denmark also has a strong national identity (where else do people put their country’s flag on birthday cakes?) which yields high levels of solidarity and respect for imposed norms.

The expectation of situation-appropriate behavior was the theme conveyed by Denmark’s much-loved Queen Margrethe, an 80-year-old chain smoker nicknamed Daisy who still insists on reading her speeches from stapled-together pieces of paper instead of a teleprompter.

Delivering the Danish Royal Family’s first non-holiday national address since World War II, Margrethe was tough on anyone who might violate isolation orders for, say, a birthday party. “Det synes jeg ikke, man kan være bekendt,” the Queen said, looking right at the camera. It was an old-ladyish admonishment that loosely translates to “It simply isn’t done.” She added: “It is thoughtless. And it is inconsiderate.”

So far, most Danes have been quite considerate. Except for an outbreak of supermarket boorishness immediately before the borders closed, there has been little panic buying, and the shelves are mostly full, with bored-looking teenagers behind newly installed plexiglass at the till. Stickers have been placed on the floor near the checkout lines so everyone remains at a good social distance.

A few individuals, however, have been slightly less than considerate. Armed gangs have busted into hospital emergency rooms to steal hand sanitizer and face masks. And con artists have been working their way into the homes of the elderly, pretending to be coronavirus testers and making off with their valuables. Moving quickly, the government has proposed to double the penalty for crimes related to coronavirus. And businesses who cheat on the aid package would be hit with four times the usual penalty for fraud.

As the outbreak continues, there is discussion about limiting movement between Denmark’s regions, similar to an initiative that Norway already has put into place. That would be a shocking idea for a country that has been largely united since Viking days. In a gesture of national solidarity, in fact, the country’s bishops suggested on Tuesday that each of Denmark’s 2,350 empty churches ring their bells at 5pm every day. The bells are a traditional call to spirituality, explained bishop Henrik Wigh-Poulsen, and “we would like everyone to take a moment to think about the sick, and about everyone who is taking care of the sick.”

“Even though it’s understandable that most people are focused on themselves and their loved ones,” he added, “now is the time to remember God and our fellow humans and, in spite of everything, the good that comes to us every single day.”

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Kay Xander Mellish

Kay Xander Mellish is the author of How to Live in Denmark, How to Work in Denmark and Working with Americans: Tips for Danes. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @KayDenmark.