Life after lockdown in Copenhagen
Denmark was the first European country to reopen schools. And downtown Copenhagen is full of people once again allowed to go to the pubs (remember those?). But was the success of Danish social isolation partly achieved by a troubling form of national isolation?
Blågårdsgade, a bar street and notorious hipster haven in central Copenhagen, is absolutely packed.
It’s a Monday night and it happens to be the first day we Danes have been let loose on the bodegas after two months of lockdown. It’s raining loads, but this hasn’t deterred anyone from chain-smoking fanatically, crammed under canopies and perched in the dubious shelter of doorwells. Predictably, as soon as the option for a Carlsberg arose, Copenhageners pounced on it.
The air is steeped with the nervous anticipation of seeing acquaintances, colleagues – anyone that isn’t in your immediate household but who you would definitely have a pint with on a Monday night – for the first time in weeks. A bit of apprehension, too, probably to do with the newly-recovered possibility of running into an old fling by coincidence.
It feels like everything is drastically back to normal. But these have been a rollercoaster few months: first freaking out that corona would be the end of society as we knew it, then living under reasonable precautions for eight weeks, then watching the disease wane quietly until the daily death tolls reached a consistent zero.
There’s a cautious sense of: “Wait, was that… it?”
The Danes are herd-animals, plain and simple. Copenhagen exists in a strange geographical and spiritual limbo somewhere between Stockholm and Berlin: rowdy at first sight, homogenous at heart.
That’s why, when Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen gave a call to solidarity on 11th March, people listened. “We must stand together by standing alone,” she said, and her social democratic command reverberated through the country, the streets immediately bare, with almost no police intervention necessary.
The borders closed with immediate effect; all Danes abroad were ordered home. Schools and businesses shut-down and a rescue-package equivalent to 12 per cent of the country’s GDP was injected into the economy, blunting the threat of mass unemployment and quelling the worst economic worries.
A few days later, Queen Margrethe II broadcast a speech that is now the most-watched TV moment in Danish history. “Don’t go out and spread Corona,” the 80-year-old told the country, sternly. “That would simply be unfair.”
The line was iconic the moment it passed her lips: it embodied all the pathos that ultimately worked wonders on the Danes.
They stayed in, and made it a matter of national pride to hygge harder than they ever had, most people seeing only their families, roommates and, on occasional walks, their closest friends. Copenhagen was eerily quiet for lack of nightlife, and many Danes agreed that this was a good moment to “evaluate what really mattered”.
Three weeks went by in which the amount of people hospitalised with coronavirus rose, the numbers peaking at around 100 daily between 22nd and 31st March. Then they began steadily falling.
Given the 14-day infection-to-symptom delay, this was clearly the happy result of effective social distancing. It was also, in the eyes of the Danes, a testimony to their general greatness as a society. The self-congratulation, both from the PM herself but also from newspapers and news outlets, was endless. It seemed that Mother Denmark had come through in all her superior glory.
It’s no secret that welfare state nationalism can get fucking creepy, and it did here, too. Throughout all 10 coronavirus-related government press conferences, there was no mention of what damage the pandemic was causing abroad or how Denmark might be of assistance. The borders were the first thing to close and the 2000 people staying in cramped “asylum camps” around the country didn’t get as much as a nod.
The disciplined Danes had “stood together” alright. But, really, they’d made sure to stand alone. Typical.
On 15th April, baby-steps towards society’s reopening were made. Or, more accurately, kids’ steps, since the very first places to warily reopen were primary schools, the dropped-off kids giving their parents better time to work from home.
The kids still had to abide by social distancing rules, though. And, yes, getting six-year-olds to play in shifts, with two metres distance, is as tricky as it sounds.
“They were given small groups to play with,” my roommate Marie, a kindergarten teacher, tells me. “Some were based on friends, some on gender. But most of them just missed playing randomly, you know? Luckily, they figured out that practicing TikTok dances is corona-risk-free. Thank God for TikTok.”
After a while, though, the little citizens got the hang of it.
“Soon enough, kids were telling me to keep my distance,” says my other teacher friend, Siff. “It’s actually crazy because kids understand simple rules better than adults do, in a way.”
As the numbers plummeted, offices opened, too, society starting up its engine once more. And, after enduring two weeks of social-distance playgrounding, the kids were finally allowed to play with whom and however they wanted.
“They were euphoric,” reported Marie, “running around like crazy. It was so cute.” Now they’re back to tagging, hugging and licking each other’s faces, probably.
I guess the cute, excited atmosphere I felt on Blågårdsgade that night isn’t much different. It was something like finally seeing your friends after a long, dull summer break. Something like being close to people you didn’t know you’d miss. Maybe when lockdown’s properly over, the Danes could get into raising a glass and saying skål with people outside their house more often?