On the front page of the New York Times on April 18, 2020, an article described protests in the Midwestern U.S. of state-imposed stay-at-home orders, even as coronavirus “death tolls spike[d].” Directly beneath was a photo of schoolchildren in Denmark from an article about how Danish elementary schools were re-opening as the threat of the virus diminished throughout the country.
On March 11, almost exactly one month before, I was halfway through my semester abroad in Copenhagen, when the news came out that all schools in the country were closing for two weeks. Within a matter of hours, my study abroad program was cancelled, my home university announced that it would be closing, and the President tweeted that the U.S. borders would be closed to all travelers from Europe. At three in the morning, I rushed to pack my suitcase while my parents bought me a plane ticket for mere hours later so that I could get back home before the borders closed (it would later be announced that since I am a U.S .citizen, I would be allowed back regardless, but this crucial piece of information had not yet been tweeted).
In my Danish Language and Culture Class we had studied how Denmark’s welfare state contributes to a high level of trust: Danes trust the government to take care of its people in times of crisis. In the morning on March 11, I went on a field trip to a local high school, where we played a game with the Danish students in which my teacher would make a statement, and we stood on one end of the classroom or another based on whether we agreed or disagreed. When my teacher made the statement, “I trust in my government,” the classroom split between Danes and Americans, with my American classmates and I gravitating toward the “disagree” side of the classroom.
That very night, the universe decided to see if I was telling the truth. And it turns out, I was. At three AM on March 12, I didn’t trust that my government would allow me back home.
And, even though they and I have vastly different political views, the protestors from the April 18 Times article didn’t trust the government, either. They didn’t trust their leaders to take any action that infringed upon their personal freedom.
The concept of freedom lives in American culture in the same way that trust resides in the hearts of Danes. As Americans protested the attacks on their freedom perpetrated by policymakers trying to keep their constituents safe, Danes showed a willingness to follow some more restrictive rules for the time being because they trusted the experts, and knew that their neighbors trusted them to be responsible.
And, as of April, Danish children were back in school. There are many differences between Denmark and America that influenced the way the pandemic affected the two countries differently. Trust, a quality conspicuously lacking in American pandemic culture, is certainly one of them.