Guest Essay in The New York Times by Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Sune Lehmann and Andreas Roepstorff
The authors are Danish researchers for the HOPE Project, a study of how democracies cope with Covid-19.
Since mid-September, Denmark has tried living as if the pandemic was over. Schools and workplaces are open. Until Friday, you could go to a bar, a nightclub, a restaurant, a movie theater, the gym and sporting arenas without showing proof of vaccination. There was no social distancing or restrictions on large gatherings, even indoors. Face masks are rare in public spaces except airports. The Danish Health Authority’s website plays a rap video thanking all the Danes who are fully vaccinated, which includes 86 percent of people over age 12.
But just because the restrictions are mostly gone does not mean the disease is. Cases have increased rapidly since all restrictions were lifted in September, reaching about 2,600 new infections reported on average each day. There are now around 315 people hospitalized.
In response, the government has reintroduced its vaccine and immunity passport for venues with crowds of more than 200 people and for outdoor areas with over 2,000 people. Face masks may also return as winter approaches. More than 90 percent of Danes support the new measures, according to our survey.
But the future is uncertain. Trust — if maintained — could make a difference. Many countries will face problems similar to Denmark’s this winter. The country’s wins and missteps can serve as lessons in why transparency is critical for navigating through uncertainty.
Our continuing research, which includes over 400,000 questionnaires on Covid-19 behaviors and attitudes in Denmark, six other European countries and the United States, suggests that Denmark’s performance up to this point is due to three important factors.
First, Denmark has high social and institutional trust compared with other countries (90 percent of Danish people say they have high or moderate trust in the country’s health authorities) along with a high willingness to be vaccinated. Second, Denmark has a low degree of political polarization and misinformation. And third, the country embraces “samfundssind,” a Danish word that loosely translates to “community spirit.” While the country struggles to include every resident in this dictum, especially immigrant populations, Denmark is generally a trusting society with a strong communitarian ethic.
High trust and a sense of community have made Covid policy easier. Temporary lockdowns happened without great backlash in Denmark. There were never any curfews, and limitations on gatherings in private homes were accomplished through widely accepted recommendations from health authorities, rather than laws. When vaccines were approved, Danes quickly got vaccinated.
Even Denmark’s worst Covid-19 outcomes pale in comparison with other countries’. In the United States, 2,303 per million people have died of Covid-19, and in the United Kingdom, the number is 2,126 per million. In Denmark, 471 per one million people have died of the disease.
The Danish government drew on this trust from the beginning of the pandemic, through regular, nationally broadcast press meetings featuring Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and other key authorities. They shared coordinated messages based on factual information about the coronavirus while underscoring Danes’ moral obligations to one another. “We must stand together by keeping our distance,” Ms. Frederiksen said at a news conference announcing the country’s March 2020 lockdown.