Corona in Denmark: Germans in, Swedes out…

Author: Steve Sampson

May 25, 2020

‘Hell is other people’, wrote Sartre. Not quite. Here in Denmark, birthplace of the existentialist Kierkegaard and the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, hygge disappeared. Since March 12, the Danish government has therefore done everything to make sure that we do not come into contact with others, and that if we do, we must ‘spray off’ any potential infection. Police have patrolled the parks to make sure gatherings had fewer than 10 persons, and if we walked around the paths around Copenhagen lakes we all had to walk in the same direction. By the third week of May Denmark had begun its own opening up process, with daily announcements aimed at key political constituencies and backed by the usual medical rationalizations and appeals for what Danes call ‘socialmindedness’ (samfundssind). A limited re-opening had begun on April 21st with the opening of daycare centers and lower school grades (0-3), enabling harried parents to return to work but NOT the upper school grades. Three more weeks would pass before small shops and service establishments could re-open, but NOT the shopping centers. On May 15, the scientifically determined ‘two-meter distancing’ rule was suddenly reduced to a scientifically determined ‘one-meter’ rule, so kids can play now football outside (but NOT inside). And then, like a miracle… the indoor shopping centers could open, but NOT Tivoli or the Zoo! On May 18th, the older pupils could return to school…. but NOT gymnasium pupils or university students. Along with the schools, , the cafes, bars and restaurants finally opened. It was a rainy, cool Monday evening, but Danes flooded into their local bars and cafes like it was New Year’s Eve. No masks to be seen.

Every morning and evening we wait anxiously for the latest news or declaration about the national testing, the number of dead (compared to Sweden) and about how to revitalize the national economy and get people shopping again by either giving supplementary benefits to the unemployed (the left-wing parties) or giving tax breaks to homeowners and businesses (the right-wing parties).

With all this, Denmark’s national borders remain closed. Returning Danish citizens and foreigners with a ‘valid justification’ may enter (i.e., job/family/residence), but no tourists. In Copenhagen, this means that no Swedes, living just across the water in Malmo, can enter Denmark unless they work here. As the Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen described in his blog about Sweden, the Nordic countries’ national identities are always relational. Each Nordic country defines what it is by what the other is not: Swedes define themselves as humanitarian in terms of refugees, restrictive about alcohol and rational when it comes to their corona strategy. Denmark, where I live, defines itself as proudly politically incorrect, with a small is good mentality, but with a libertarian streak: Denmark has legal prostitution, alcohol 24/7, Christiania as drug Mecca, and a greater tolerance for nasty rhetoric about immigrants, integration and Islam. The Danish phrase ‘we don’t want to become like Sweden’ has now been applied to Swedish corona policy. And perhaps with good reason, in that the Swedish death rate is four times the Danish. Danish media cover Sweden incessantly, with a good deal of Schadenfreude: those arrogant Swedes – with their strong bureaucrat and spineless prime minister -- have apparently let their aged citizens die by the thousands. Swedes, for their part, complain about the closed Danish borders, while the visiting Danes, they say, are actually ‘infecting Swedes’. Swedish politicians, including the Mayor of Lund, have complained of anti-Swedish discrimination.

Meanwhile, in Southern Jutland, near the north German border, Danish campground and summer cottage renters are lamenting: ‘Who will rent our summer houses if the Germans cannot come?’ ‘We need the Germans!’ There are demonstrations to ‘Let the Germans in’, which is rather strange for a country that recently commemorated the Nazi invasion of Denmark, along this same border.

While the corona virus has caused 570 deaths in Denmark, along with unemployment and decline of Danish exports and tourism, it is also intensely personal. What makes it a crisis, as we all have found out, is its effect on our life routines, right down to shaking hands, hugging children or having a beer with a friend. What Danes call ‘hygge’. For weeks, Danish TV interviewed hairdressers (always female) about how they were coping with the lockdown. When hairdressers were allowed to re-open two weeks ago, there were celebrations. When the shopping malls finally reopened on May 18, they were warned not to advertise special sales promotions that could entice too many customers. Who knows what pent-up desires the Danes might have, not having shopped for weeks. On a cool Monday the 18th of May, the cafes and restaurants were allowed to re-open. The world may be falling apart, but the Breaking News in Denmark was that people could now have a bottle of beer or a latte, as if the country had been starving. Even Noma, the world’s number 1 restaurant, replaced their 400 dollar standard dinner with a Burger Bar! No reservations necessary! Forget Michelin, the people have triumphed.

Now with most places open (the Zoo and movie theatres opened on 23 May, but not the universities), Denmark faces its major post-emergency: 247 of the 27,000 Danish businesses that received government financial support to remain open turn out to be headquartered in nasty tax havens like Cayman Islands or Jersey! The TV news found plenty of indignant citizens angry about this. The firms’ PR spokesmen insisted that they were violating no laws.

As summer approaches, Danes are faced with their vacation dilemma: where will we get our 3 weeks of well-deserved sun and sand? What about charter tourism to Crete, Mallorca and Antalya? Will we be forced to spend it here at home, facing the prospect of cloudy, windy, rainy weather? Stuck in a summer cottage in 10 degree wind? Life is unfair. The Government must intervene!

The despondent hairdresser waiting to reopen, the anxious bar owner on that first Monday, the Jutland beach cottage owners waiting for their Germans, the indignant pensioner about offshore firms taking our taxes, and the concerned parents whose kids will be deprived of their summer vacation. Having been watching all these worried people day after day, you begin to think, ‘How trivial’…. How narcissistic…Can’t these people see that we are in a crisis, and that there are more important things to worry about? We are not in a war, there has not been any sort of deadly earthquake, we are not starving, the supermarkets are open, the electricity is on, the net is working, there are plenty of films on Netflix! Days have gone by without a single death. What’s wrong with these people?!

And then, shame on me, I’m an anthropologist. These are people’s real lives. This is who they are! This is their ‘practice’. We academics may be cosmopolitan and global, but their lives are local. These are the lives we study. They are not watching CNN or reading the ‘New York Review of Books’, ‘The Guardian’, ‘Die Zeit’, or their Danish equivalents. much less ‘Anthropological Theory’. They are worried about getting their hair cut, about whether their neighborhood bar will go out of business! Whether Germans will come north and rent their house. This is what crisis looks like. These are what Bruno Latour called the ‘matters of concern’ that affect Danes. Fuck ‘herd immunity’.

When Denmark began the close, hell was other people, but when it opened up, they proved Sartre wrong. Hygge is back. Sociality is good.

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