Time to live again in Copenhagen: Denmark moves into post-Covid-19 mode

Spectators at a concert of the Danish band The Minds of 99 in Copenhagen on Sept 11, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

COPENHAGEN - The only place in the Danish capital where you can still see something of the Covid-19 pandemic is at the airport.

Young health workers are screening travellers.

"Are you double vaccinated?" they ask. Most travellers nod fleetingly and hurry on towards the exit.

The aid workers do not ask for any written proof. Only those who answer in the negative are directed to the Covid-19 test.

In the subway station behind the airport exit, the travellers tear their masks off. There are about 60 people in the carriage. Only one passenger keeps his mouth guard on.

In the stairway of Norreport station there are posters featuring British actor Daniel Craig. Passers-by are treated to the theme music from the James Bond films.

The premiere of the long-awaited new instalment of the movie was on Thursday (Sept 30).

The 6pm screening at the Imperial, the largest cinema in Denmark, with 996 seats, was sold out days in advance.

The film is titled No Time To Die.

For the Danes, the motto now is rather: Finally, time to live properly again.

On Sept 10, the government lifted Covid-19's status as a "critical threat to society", downgraded the infection to "a serious disease" and thus lifted the last restrictions.

One day later, Danish rock band Minds of 99 played at the national stadium in front of 50,000 people, and the critic of the music magazine Soundvenue wrote about being enraptured by the "collective rush of happiness".

The cheers reverberated for kilometres across the city. People were celebrating not just a rock band, but the perceived end of the pandemic.

"This is only possible because we have come a long way in introducing vaccination, we have the epidemic well under control and because the entire Danish population has made great efforts to achieve this goal," says Mr Magnus Heunicke, Minister of Health in the Social Democratic government.

Unlike in Germany, Denmark's big neighbour to the south, there are hardly any vaccination sceptics or opponents. Already at the beginning of last month, more than 80 per cent of people over the age of 12 were fully vaccinated. Among those over 60, the figure was as high as 96 per cent. On Wednesday, 74.5 per cent of the total population had been fully vaccinated.

Accordingly, the number of deaths has dwindled. In January, up to 32 people a day died from Covid-19 in Denmark. Since mid-March, that number has been stable at zero to a maximum of four deaths per day.

At the beginning of January, the number of hospitalisations hit the peak, with 942 Covid-19 patients. Currently, 89 people are still being treated in hospitals, 16 of them in intensive care units.

"Ninety-five per cent of the population say they trust the health authorities," says Professor Michael Bang Petersen, explaining the high vaccination coverage.

The political scientist at Aarhus University has been surveying the mood of the population in daily polls since the beginning of the crisis. "In the long run, transparent communication is the key to success for this trust," says Prof Petersen.

This also includes pointing out uncertainties, he says: The authorities and advising scientists had repeatedly stressed that fighting the pandemic was a learning process.

When Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced a lockdown earlier than other European leaders on March 11 last year, she stressed: "Will we make mistakes? Yes, we will."

Overall, the government steered the country very well through the Covid crisis, also thanks to its efficient and digitalised administration, compared to other countries in Europe. As early as April 2020, an agency, TestCenter Danmark, was established to drive a large-scale mass testing strategy together with the Danish pharmaceutical company NovoNordisk. Mass testing was a key factor for the Danes to control the pandemic. The Danes were also the first country in Europe to have a functioning digital "Corona Passport": test results were delivered directly to the smartphone.

The trust by citizens into its government was also helped by the suspension of AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson vaccines in March 2021 when studies suspected severe side effects.

Besides trust, a strong sense of responsibility characterises the Scandinavian welfare states, which drove people to the vaccination centres, Prof Petersen points out.

"Even at the turn of the year, when the pandemic was at its worst, less than 30 per cent of respondents said they were worried about themselves personally. But over 70 per cent said they were worried about Covid-19's impact on society," he noted.

People enjoy outdoor service as cafes, restaurants and bars reopen in Copenhagen on April 21, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Unlike Denmark, neighbouring Sweden relied even more on this sense of responsibility and did without lockdowns - but the country paid for this with more deaths, three times more when measured in terms of population, especially in nursing homes.

In Sweden, 1,458 people per million inhabitants died, while in Denmark, the figure was 458.

But now, the two countries are converging in their policies. In Sweden, 76.5 per cent of those over the age of 16 are already fully vaccinated. In the 60-plus age group, the figure is around 90 per cent. On Wednesday, the government in Stockholm lifted most of the restrictions still in place.

The flip side of society's sense of responsibility is: If you do not get vaccinated and then fall ill, it is your own fault.

"My overall assessment is that society now accepts it when a few people die with Covid-19, just as we have to accept flu as a cause of death," says Prof Petersen. This would make Covid-19 a disease like many others.

To date, 2,665 people have died of Covid-19 out of a population of 5.8 million, 88 per cent of whom live in urban areas even though the country of 43,000 sq km is characterised by vast stretches of agricultural land as well as villages and small towns. The greater Copenhagen area has 1.3 million people concentrated in it.

National Serum Institute epidemiologist Camilla Holten Moller says: "But Denmark is certainly not in a post-Covid-19 era.

"We expect the disease to enter an endemic phase, which means that Covid-19 will continue to circulate in society in the coming years. There is expected to be considerable seasonal variation."

As the cold season begins, during which people spend most of their time indoors, any increase will be monitored and analysed using mathematical modelling.

"It also remains to be seen whether new variants or waning immunity will lead to significant waves of infection. Although Covid-19 is no longer a socially critical disease in Denmark, the Danish government has stated that it will act in time if necessary," says Dr Moller.

Besides the unvaccinated, it is some old and weakened people who end up in hospital with Covid-19, according to the Danish Health Authority.

Therefore, booster vaccinations have begun for this particularly vulnerable group.

Mr Heunicke announced on Twitter on Sunday that, so far, 72.9 per cent of residents in the country's nursing homes had received a third shot - a total of 28,052 people. From Friday (Oct 1), all people over the age of 85 are being offered a booster.

The sense of social responsibility in Denmark does go far. The non-profit Lego Fund, which owns 25 per cent of the toy company of the same name, has announced a donation of 444 million kroner (S$94.5 million) to Unicef, where it will go towards Covax - the World Health Organisation's global vaccination initiative.

This largest single donation to Covax to date will make it possible to vaccinate 14 million teachers and health workers in developing countries.

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