In the eight years I’ve lived in Denmark, the most common question I’m asked is also the hardest to answer. Where do I like living better, the US or Denmark? I usually mumble something noncommittal in the hopes of ducking a long drawn-out discussion on things like tax rates and the Nordic welfare model.
But ask me where I’d rather live right now, and my answer would be unequivocal. In these crazy corona times, I’m very happy to be in Denmark.
That’s not just because the spread of the pandemic is under better control here than in the US, although that is undeniable. As of May 15, there have been just 10,791 confirmed cases and 537 deaths here while the US now has the world’s highest number of cases, at 1.4 million, and the highest death toll, with roughly 87,000 Americans having succumbed to COVID-19 thus far. Obviously, the massive population disparity between the two countries makes a comparison of these raw numbers almost meaningless. The per capita figures, however, shine a clearer light on the picture. While the US has 4,407 cases and 363 deaths per one million inhabitants, Denmark’s figures are well under than half of that, with just 1,864 cases and 93 deaths per million.
Armed protests vs debating the zoo
But health statistics do not even begin to scratch the surface of how different the coronavirus situation looks in Denmark compared to the United States. My unhealthy morning routine of opening Twitter shortly after waking up provides ample examples of just how broken America is these days and how good things look here by comparison.
In the US, armed protestors storm state capitals and bring their bazookas to sandwich shops. In Denmark, people worry that the head of the infectious disease institute was too mean when he scolded teenagers for not social distancing. In the US, employees are shot trying to enforce their store’s mask policy while in Denmark, the reopening of an Ikea and the decision to not reopen the Copenhagen Zoo dominate headlines for days. In the US, Trump pushes unproven drugs and conspiracy theories. Here, the head of the Danish Health Authority tells Danes to not let the virus keep them from having sex.
I could go on and on. These contrasting headlines leave me with a dizzying sense of mental whiplash that would almost be comical if the news coming out of the US wasn’t so downright sad.
Twitter, of course, is not real life and I know that the heartbreaking and frightening headlines and photos coming out of the US do not paint the full picture. After all, while the gun nuts with assault weapons and cosplay military fatigues may get all of the attention, the vast majority of Americans support and abide by the lockdown orders, often at a high personal cost.
But when I see the news coming out of the US every day, I couldn’t agree with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen more when she said that if we’re spending time discussing things like Ikea, it only proves that things are going very, very well in Denmark.
What qualifies as a 'scandal' in Denmark. Photo: Niels Christian Vilmann/Ritzau Scanpix
Trust has been key to Denmark's response
From the start, Danes have by-and-large bought in to the government’s plan to slow the spread of the virus and have done what was asked of them by staying at home, maintaining social distance and stepping up their hygiene. Sure, there have been disagreements and varying opinions, but for the most part Danes have trusted and followed the recommendations they’ve been given.
The type of reaction is not unusual here, where Danes’ trust in the authorities and one another is the highest in the world.
The picture is much different in the US, where studies have shown that Americans’ trust in the government and each other has been declining since the 1970s. According to the Pew Research Center, only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government to do what is right.
A majority of Americans also believe that others just look out for themselves and would take advantage of you if they had the chance. By contrast, European Social Survey results over the past two decades show that Danes trust one another more than any other population in Europe.
This lack of trust in one another and in institutions underpins so much of what we are seeing in the US during the coronavirus crisis. People who don’t trust the government, the media or the medical and scientific communities are more likely to rebel against lockdown measures and put their own demands before the common good. When people don’t trust each other, and when American politics are as tribal and divisive as they are now, the decision of whether or not to wear a mask is just another front in the endless culture wars.
Regardless of how one feels about Frederiksen’s overall politics, most Danes have supported her during the crisis. The Danish government’s response to the coronavirus has both boosted and benefited from the high levels of trust here.
Surrounded by the other party leaders, PM Mette Frederiksen announces new re-opening plans. Photo: Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix
Responsibility vs magical thinking
Danish officials have also earned this trust by handling the coronavirus crisis infinitely better than the Trump Administration. Rewinding back to February 27, the day that Denmark confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, offers just one in a long line of stark contrasts between the US and Danish responses. On that day, Danish health officials held a sober press conference explaining the seriousness of the situation while Trump promised: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
From the start, Denmark has acted quickly and decisively. On March 11, when there were only around 500 recorded cases in Denmark and no deaths, the government closed schools and other public institutions and banned large gatherings. Two days later, Denmark sealed its borders and a few days after that ordered shopping centers, cafes, restaurants and bars to close.
On the day we started our lockdown, Trump was still telling Americans “it’s going to go away”. As the Danish PM soberly told the public that we were “entering uncharted territory” and that she would undoubtedly make some mistakes along the way, Trump was infamously declaring “No, I don't take responsibility at all.”
Throughout the rest of March and into April, as the number of cases and deaths exploded in the United States and Trump went from dismissing the virus to casting around for others to blame, Danish government and health officials continued to calmly and transparently explain the situation to a nervous public. In an unprecedented move, Queen Margrethe even addressed the nation to rebuke those who were not taking the measures seriously.
In the US, meanwhile, there was no uniform strategy to be found nor any comforting words to be heard from the nation’s top leader. During this crisis, as always, Trump sees himself simultaneously as the both the story’s hero and its biggest victim. This of course comes as no surprise. But while we’ve become numb to his narcissism, incompetence and corruption, his coronavirus press briefings also included statements that are downright dangerous, whether that’s suggesting Americans ingest disinfectant or insinuating that states won’t get the medical equipment they need unless their governors bow down and kiss his ring.
While Trump has thundered and blustered, insulted journalists and falsely claimed that his authority is “total”, Frederiksen and the leading Danish health officials have been largely praised for their communication and the collaborative nature of decision-making.
That’s not to say there haven’t been missteps and confusing and sometimes conflicting guidelines and recommendations. It’s been hard to make head or tails of Denmark’s testing strategy and many of the decisions about what should be reopened and when have been driven more by politics than sound scientific advice.
Political disagreements between the Danish parties are becoming more pronounced here in the reopening stage than they were at the outset.
Schools re-opened for the youngest children in mid-April and older primary school students return next week. Photo: Keld Navntoft/Ritzau Scanpix
Life re-approaching normal in Denmark
But as the number of coronavirus cases in the US has plateaued and the death toll projections keep rising, here in Denmark the situation has stabilized enough that we are slowly but surely re-approaching normalcy. My daughter joined the rest of the country’s K-5 students in returning to school on April 16 and next week, my son and the rest of the older primary school students will have their turn. Shops and malls have re-opened, sports have returned and cafes, restaurants and bars will welcome guests back next week.
Throughout these past two months, one of the most frequently-used words here in Denmark has been ‘samfundssind’, which roughly translates as “public spirit”. It’s the sense that we are all in this together and that, in the words of Frederiksen, to get through the crisis “we should stand together by keeping apart”. It’s this sense of togetherness that is perhaps the greatest contrast of all with the US, where the pandemic has been politicized by the divider-in-chief and the hyper-partisan media environment.
The types of angry protests we’ve seen in the US over the past few weeks are absolutely unimaginable here in Denmark, where the biggest clash with authority thus far has been a handful of tickets handed out by the police after shutting down a popular harbourside park in Copenhagen.
That doesn’t mean Danes are happy with the lockdown measures. But here in Denmark, we know that when we’re asked to sacrifice by staying home that we have a social safety net beneath us. The same cannot be said in the United States, where scared and angry Americans have their health worries compounded by legitimate and increasingly dire economic concerns.
Over 36 million American workers have lost their jobs and the unemployment rate is the highest since the Great Depression. Because of the US’s employer-based healthcare system, many of those who lost their jobs will also lose insurance coverage in the midst of a pandemic. Many are unable to pay rent. If this is where we are in May, how will things look in July? How out of control will the partisan anger be in the fall as we approach the presidential election?
The Danish government was one of the first in the world to announce that it would come to affected workers’ aid with an ambitious help package to avoid layoffs and firings. Thanks to that and the additional help packages that followed, the unemployment rate in Denmark has only increased by a few percentage points since the crisis hit.
I take no pleasure in making these comparisons. I’m scared for my family and friends in the US, the majority of whom are in Iowa, one of just eight states that never issued a stay-at-home order and where some counties are still seeing coronavirus cases double every week. It pains me to see the US fail to rise up to this challenge, but I still love America and I always will.
Living in Denmark has not spared me from the pandemic. I haven’t been sick but my mental health has taken a beating and I have serious concerns about how all of this is affecting my children. Economically, my freelance work has dried up and a part-time job has gone up in smoke.
But these are all ‘normal’ problems that everyone is facing the world over. What I see happening in the US reminds me that it could be much worse. So yes, for now, I strongly prefer Denmark.
Justin Cremer is the former editor of The Local Denmark. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrJustinCremer