The first Danish Coronavirus case was diagnosed on February 27, and so many things have changed in Denmark over the past four weeks.
Most notable, of course, is the misery of the people infected with the virus, the pain of the families who have lost loved ones, and the Herculean efforts of the health care workers who care for them.
But daily life has changed for ordinary citizens as well, and not just because many of us aren’t quite sure what will be happening with our jobs and exactly how we will be paying the rent in the future, not to mention all that online shopping from home we’ve been doing during quarantine.
Schools are closed, with the kids (more or less) learning from home, and many of their parents are (more or less) working from home too. Cinemas, shops, gyms, and swimming halls have been shut down in an attempt to break the chain of infections. Concerts and sporting events are canceled.
Confirmations scheduled for the spring have been put off – a crushing disappointment for the teenagers who have spent the past 6 months in Bible studies with hopes of a big spring party.
What is surprising, though, is how much is unchanged.
It’s spring, like always; there are lovely green buds on the trees, like always, and Denmark’s cherry blossom trees are blooming, although Copenhagen’s famous cherry tree corridor at Bispebjerg Cemetery has been closed to prevent dangerous crowds.
Just like always, Danish kids in their quilted “flying suits” are playing outside, drawing with colorful chalk on the sidewalk and scooting away on their pushbikes as their parents chase after them.
There’s nothing more timeless, and more comforting, than the sound of children’s laughter.
The fate of the handshake
One of the great questions in the aftermath of the Coronavirus outbreak in Denmark will be the fate of the handshake.
Only two months ago, a law debuted that required new Danish citizens to shake hands with the mayor of the local municipality. The law, which was promoted by nationalist parties and targeted at fundamentalist Muslims who refuse to shake hands with the opposite sex, was in my opinion stupid even before the Coronavirus crisis. (One Dutch-born mayor who was becoming a Danish citizen would have had to shake his own hand.)
What happens after the virus is vanquished? The Danes do love a handshake; when arriving at a party, they go around and shake the hand of everyone in the room. The same is true of a job interview; it’s considered appropriate to shake the hand of each of the managers staring at you from across the table.
Giving up the good strong handshake, long thought to be an indication of good strong character, would be a body blow to Danish manners.
The quiet times
Denmark has always been a quiet country. Three weeks into the Coronavirus shutdown, it’s even quieter now.
I bicycled through downtown Copenhagen last Sunday, and it was a lot like Sunday used to be when I first arrived in Denmark. Back then, shops closed at 1pm on Saturday and didn’t open again until Monday morning. It was always exasperating to realize at 1:15 on Saturday that you were missing an ingredient for your dinner recipe or one crucial piece of hardware for a renovation project, but it did force you to spend your Sunday with family or working on your hobbies instead of standing in line at Føtex.
In the virus times, of course, supermarkets are pretty much the only type of store open.
Going there can be one of the highlights of the day, since it is one of the only government-approved reasons to leave your home. It’s always nice to pick up some fresh fruit or salad – I think everyone already has enough toilet paper.
As you return home from the supermarket, come in and wash your hands for what must be the tenth time that day, not counting the times you have bathed them in foul-smelling hand sanitizer.
While you were out, you may have touched a surface with the virus, although you have certainly not shaken anyone’s hand.
Social distancing on bicycles and boats
The authorities suggest that everyone avoid infection by maintaining social distance, staying a good one to two meters away from other people.
Of course, that’s no problem for riders on Copenhagen’s S-trains, who always sit as far away from each other as possible. This form of social distancing has been going on for as long as I’ve lived here; Danes do enjoy a privacy bubble.
The much-loved bicycle is another excellent social distancing machine. It’s hard to come too close to anyone while riding one, and you really don’t touch anything but the handlebars.
If you’re rich, you can even do social distancing with your sailboat. Out in the middle of the Øresund or the Kattegat, no virus can reach you, provided you have chosen your sailing companions carefully.
Thoughts about masks
Medical masks have long been popular in Asia, which has learned through the bitter experience of SARS and MERS how to handle respiratory epidemics.
But they are rarely worn in Denmark. Even in these Coronavirus times, the only people I’ve seen wearing them have been of Asian descent, plus one group of trendy young men wearing what looked like military-grade gas masks for a trip to the supermarket.
In Denmark, wearing a mask to a political demonstration has long been illegal, and in 2018 the law was extended to include the everyday wear of burkhas, niqabs, fake beards and balaclava-style hats that cover your face.
There is an exception for “masks that serve a worthy purpose”, and one could argue that a medical mask is quite worthy, particularly if the wearer is ill or immune-compromised. The decision of whether or not the purpose of a mask is “worthy” is left up to the individual police officer.
Covering your face isn’t customary in Northern European culture; it is seen as a sign of dishonesty or aggression. Even my most left-wing friends quietly told me that they agreed with the burkha and niqab ban.
If Danes begin to wear masks in the street, that will be an indication that the Coronavirus times have resulted in very serious change.