Five things the Covid-19 crisis taught us about Denmark

Five things the Covid-19 crisis taught us about Denmark
For Alex from Romania the pandemic revealed that Danes aren't really that sociable. Photo: Niclas Jessen
The Covid crisis and the Danish response has revealed a lot about the country.

The Danes may not be the fun-loving, party people of Scandinavia 

Swedes and Norwegians tend to see the Danes as their happy-go-lucky, beer-guzzling cousins, with the nightlife in Denmark’s biggest cities generally wilder and more intoxicated than that of Sweden and Norway, the density of pubs and bars much higher, and alcohol and cigarettes cheaper. 

But while Denmark shut down bars and nightclubs in March last year, in supposedly boring Sweden the party kept going. Bars in Sweden have never closed, and it took nearly a year, until the end of February 2021, before they were forced to close at 8.30pm. 

While nightclubs in Sweden did close in March 2020, they reopened after the summer, and stayed open for several months, with wild scenes shared on social media as late as October.  

For Alex from Romania, the pandemic confirmed his suspicion that the Danes are a little less sociable than they might like to present themselves as. 

“It confirmed that as Nordic people, Danes like to keep their distance. The social distancing restrictions felt almost like a natural extension of Danish society, rather than a burden,” he said in answer to a questionnaire from The Local. “Small circles of friends stick together, people spend the evening with their family, activities are typically done alone or in very small numbers out in nature anyway.” 

“The Danes are known to be a hard nut to crack, and I feel that during corona, that nut got even harder,” complained one foreigner from Africa. 

Danes are more avid rule-followers than the Germans, and have a surprising authoritarian streak

Not only did Denmark’s government decisively impose far-going coronavirus measures early in the pandemic, but the population also appeared to adhere to them better than in most countries.  

An analysis of Google mobility data by Dr Sotiris Georganasa of the UK’s City University found that Denmark was the only one of the nine countries surveyed where second wave restrictions were adhered to by the population as much as those of the first wave. 

“The pandemic has shown me how much Danes follow rules when the government imposes them,” said one German respondent to The Local’s survey. “They are rule-abiding, even to an extreme.”

Apart from the small but vocal Men in Black protestors, the Danish population has also been perhaps surprisingly compliant in the face of two long periods of restrictions, with nothing approaching the scale of anti-lockdown protestors in the UK, Germany or France. 

“I’ve been quite impressed with the lack of protests about shutdowns and mask-wearing,” said Andy, from the UK. “Certainly people have complained, but people seem far more ready to accept the situation as necessary (compared to the UK).”

Finally, the pandemic has also brought an authoritarian streak in Denmark into sudden sharp relief, although this may stem partly from the strong personality and leadership qualities of the current prime minister Mette Frederiksen. 

“The government is turning out to be authoritarian in some scary ways,” Mika, from Finland, said in our survey. 

Danes are really, really good in a crisis 

Apart from small outbreaks of supermarket hoarding at the start of the first lockdown, foreigners in Denmark expressed amazement at how calm and good-humoured Danes have been throughout, despite the long-lasting and quite far-going restrictions. 

“I see a less fear-driven culture (try going to Germany during the crisis as I did), such fear there,” wrote Scott, from Australia. “Definitely more relaxed here.” 

One respondent from an African country said he’d been amazed by “the calmness of it”. 

“It was exactly as I expected. Danes take care of each other,” wrote Arthur, a Dane who has spent most of his life in the US and Canada.  “Government in Denmark is an argument about the middle, and it can become a serious tussle over that small bit of back and forth. Yet, it never escapes that middle with an understanding that, with the odd aberration here and there, it is a collective that also relishes in the creativity of individual differences.”

The Danish government and its agencies are incredibly effective and efficient 

At almost every stage of the crisis, the Danish government has managed to respond rapidly with detailed, well-thought-out measures and legislation.

A detailed financial support package for businesses was rolled out only shortly after the first restrictions were put in place, the country rapidly drew up and enacted a temporary pandemic law.

As early as April 2020, it established an entirely new agency, TestCenter Danmark, along with the Danish pharma company NovoNordisk, to drive forward testing. 

Denmark has been the first country in Europe to have a working coronavirus passport, has led the way in mass testing, and until it decided to withdraw the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, it led the European Union in vaccinations. 

With the exception of the one big mistake – the decision to kill the country’s entire population of minks — it’s hard to think of any other government in Europe whose performance in the pandemic has been better. 

Despite the robust debate and public arguments, at root, Denmark is a consensus culture 

Danes love to argue, and take pride in their willingness to express unpopular opinions, but the pandemic showed that underneath all that Denmark is a consensus culture just like Sweden across the sea.

On the political sphere, this was shown in the way opposition parties held back from criticising the government until the first wave was safely over. On the individual level, it was reflected in the readiness of citizens to police the behaviour of others. 

“I have noticed that the Danes really like restrictions and rules and get really really mad if one does not respect them, like a little too angry,” said one anonymous respondent to our survey. 

One anonymous respondent from Africa said he had been surprised at how “folk all jumped in, ostracising anyone that dared not wear a mask or social distance safely enough”. 

“The Law of Jante is not a myth,” he concluded. 


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