New Normal in Denmark: Breathing Through Crisis in Utopia

“Looks like you are in the best place in the world to get through COVID” was the message that I received from a former editor in April. It was one month into Denmark’s lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Without any warning, the Nordic nation was one of the first in Europe to grind society to a halt but also among the first to reopen.

My editor was right. While Danish society is imperfect, living in Denmark during the coronavirus crisis is a lesson on privilege, the workings of a welfare state and the importance of equality and decisive action.

I arrived in Denmark in August 2019 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism under an EU scholarship. Coming from Manila, my first impression was that I landed in utopia. Life is orderly in the Scandinavian nation known for being one of the world’s happiest countries. Public transport and services are reliable while education and health care are free. The Danes take pride in building a modern, progressive and efficient society.

Restaurants and cafés in Denmark have reopened and they are full especially during the summer. Photo by Ayee Macaraig

The coronavirus pandemic, however, brought crisis to paradise. While in January officials said that the virus was unlikely to reach Denmark, in a matter of days in March, cases soared from 15 to more than 300 in a kingdom of 5.8 million, a population smaller than that of Metro Manila.

This prompted Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to announce on March 11 the closure of borders, schools, restaurants, shopping centres, gyms and every institution part of life as we knew it.

Social safety nets

While critics continue to question the Danish government’s early lockdown decision, the call so far proved to be the right and popular one, based on surveys.

Polls show that among EU citizens, Danes were the most satisfied with their government’s response to the pandemic, and the least worried about job loss. This is largely in part due to compensation packages that the government rolled out to shoulder a hefty chunk of employees’ salaries and to help companies stay afloat.

All of a sudden, I understood why Denmark had sky-high taxes and prices that I constantly struggle with as a student, including the distinction of having the world’s most expensive Starbucks coffee. These taxes come right back to citizens in the form of social safety nets when they matter the most.

While shoppers emptied shelves in many parts of the world, panic did not appear to be in the Danish vocabulary. People remain calm and follow the clear, regularly communicated government directives. After all, trust in government and fellow citizens is a cornerstone of Danish society. Equality is another value and everyone is expected to follow the rules with no double standard whatsoever. The nation’s female leaders — the prime minister and the Queen — took to television to emphasise the need for social distancing.

People dine out again in Denmark where wearing masks is not obligatory. Photo by Ayee Macaraig

Now Denmark, the first European country to reopen schools, is regarded as an international leader in COVID-19 response. It is just the 61st country in the world with the most coronavirus cases while the government ramped up testing, which is available to all.

Society has gradually reopened and restrictions are less stringent than in many places. Here, people are not required to wear masks and can gather with 49 others. Doing groceries does not entail long waits or queues. Bars, restaurants, malls, cafés and gyms have reopened, provided they abide by the one-metre social distancing rule. Crucially for a country deprived of sunshine, people can now hit the beach and swimming pools during the summer.

Public swimming pools have reopened in Denmark after a three-month lockdown. Photo by Ayee Macaraig

Discrimination, uncertainty, anxiety

Yet it would be grossly inaccurate to say that life in Denmark during the crisis was problem-free.

For international students and workers, the situation was taxing. My friends and fellow Filipino students as well as other Asians here experienced being yelled at with, “Corona! Corona!”. It is a reminder that racism remains a problem even in Denmark where immigration is a hot-button issue and people of colour face daily difficulties in a diverse but still predominantly white society.

Some of my classmates in our global Erasmus programme, who relied on part-time work to pay bills, found themselves jobless. They are now raising funds to be able to continue with their second year of studies in an increasingly uncertain situation where universities are still trying to determine whether the next year will be offered purely online or through hybrid classes. For students from developing nations, we found ourselves stuck in Denmark as returning home during the summer break is not an option due to flight unavailability or rising infections.

Erasmus Mundus Journalism cohort 2019-2021 celebrates the end of exams spent in isolation during the lockdown. Photo by Ayee Macaraig

I would be the last person to complain about staying in Denmark while tiding through the crisis. Coronavirus or not, living and studying here on scholarship is a privilege. The past few months though have not been easy. The pandemic hit Europe at the peak of our academic year. My classmates and I had to muster two exams including a mini-thesis from our dorm rooms. My favourite place in Denmark, the library, was closed. The pandemic-related mental health issues that affected the world also took a toll on us.

I was gung-ho during the first month of the lockdown, eager to prove that I was able to rise up to the challenge. But by the time the second month hit, so did the realisation that the situation could go on with no end in sight and no answers to lingering questions about the future. I developed what I called “examxiety”, the anxiety of having to do well in the exams while under lockdown.

I was also constantly distracted by news from home where some politicians and officials blatantly violated quarantine rules while poor, vulnerable Filipinos bore the brunt of the crisis. It was disorienting to physically be in a country whose response to the pandemic was exemplary while mentally being in the Philippines worried about the precarious health and economic problems there.

Yoga and introspection

Yoga is a way to keep sane and deal with anxiety and uncertainty from the coronavirus crisis. Photo by Peter Wilson

Breathing and rolling with the punches are the only way to cope with an unprecedented situation.

I tried to maintain my grip on sanity through yoga classes on Zoom, French chats on Skype, and the unmatched power of face-to-face conversations with my Russian dormmate and Filipino friends. During the lockdown, gatherings of up to 10 people were allowed so I was able to celebrate my birthday with a small dinner, not a mañanita. Talking to my Filipino barkada about events back home was our way of coping with being in a strange land during a very strange time.

Meditation is ideal during the early hours in Denmark where beaches offer a stunning view of sunrise. Photo by Peter Wilson

Now that Denmark has reopened after three months, there is more room to breathe but also more space for introspection. Whenever I share news online about the management of the virus here, my friends in the Philippines comment with the hashtag #SanaAll.

There are many lessons the Philippines and the rest of the world can learn from the Danish response to the virus. While the circumstances and context are different, investing in governance systems, basic services and the slow work of gaining public trust in authority and each other are takeaways from what is indeed one of the best places in the world to get through COVID-19.

About the Author:

Ayee  Macaraig

Ayee Macaraig is a Filipino multimedia journalist with 11 years of experience in newswire, television and digital media. She was Manila correspondent for the international news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), a reporter for Rappler and an executive producer for the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC).

She is currently doing an internship with the English language newspaper The Copenhagen Post in Denmark. Ayee is in Denmark to pursue a master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Globalisation under an Erasmus Mundus scholarship from the EU.

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