Opinion

Denmark’s Hard Lessons About Trust and the Pandemic

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.

In March 2021, the Danish Health Authority was among the first in the world to suspend and later drop the use of AstraZeneca vaccines over concerns about side effects. Health authorities explained that the pandemic in Denmark was under control and that different vaccines were on the way. There’s no evidence to suggest that vaccination rates were affected by this decision. This willingness to be transparent and publicly revise policies in light of new findings is critical to maintaining public trust.

But the trust that’s crucial for making Denmark’s response to the pandemic a success can, in some cases, empower authorities to go too far without institutional or public resistance. Our research shows the most significant drop in Danes’ trust in government happened shortly after an event that’s locally called “Minkgate.”

In early November 2020, Ms. Frederiksen announced that all minks in Denmark must be culled to quell the spread of a coronavirus mutation among the animals. This would include up to an estimated 17 million minks spread across 1,000 farms. Within two weeks, about 11 million minks were slaughtered and an industry was effectively gutted.

But it turned out the government didn’t have the legal authority to make such an order. That realization was a scandal. The agriculture minister resigned, and the government’s order is likely to cost around $3 billion in expenses and compensation to farmers and the mink industry. There’s a continuing public investigation that will culminate with the questioning of the prime minister in December.

Although Danes’ trust in government has risen again since Minkgate, it hasn’t fully recovered. Minkgate showed that just because governments are sometimes given wide latitude by their electorate to act aggressively, it does not mean they should take that permission for granted.

As cases rise and restrictions are reintroduced, Denmark must once again lean on people’s sense of trust and community to see the pandemic through. There is a risk that the unity Danes feel toward one another could be challenged if the pandemic heats back up thanks to unvaccinated people getting sick and spreading the virus. Already the country deals with public shaming of areas with lower vaccination rates, many of which have sizable immigrant populations.

Trust remains critical to ending pandemics. Achieving it requires transparency, openness and willingness to embrace uncertainty. This may be the most critical challenge for post-Covid-19 societies, including in Denmark. Let’s hope we can trust one another enough to approach this challenge openly and honestly.

Rebecca Adler-Nissen is a professor of political science and deputy director of the Center for Social Data Science at the University of Copenhagen. Sune Lehmann is a professor of complexity and network science at the Technical University of Denmark and a professor of data science at the Center for Social Data Science at the University of Copenhagen. Andreas Roepstorff is a professor of cognition, communication and culture, and director of the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University.

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