Danish authorities lifted all pandemic restrictions on September 10 and declared that covid-19 is no longer a “critical threat” in the country. Vaccination rates are high: 86 percent of all eligible citizens aged 12 and up have received at least one shot, and 95 percent of those aged 50 and up have received all three vaccines.
We surveyed over 400,000 people in Denmark and seven other countries as part of Denmark’s largest behavioral covid-19 research project (the HOPE project). According to our findings, citizens’ high and consistent trust in their health authorities has been a critical factor in Denmark’s success. This trust, as depicted in the graph below, encouraged high vaccination rates as well as the successful implementation of key policies such as mass testing and coronavirus passports.
Lack of trust in authorities — such as government officials, local leaders, and health experts, for example — is one of the primary reasons people refuse to get vaccinated against the virus, according to research on vaccine hesitancy, including our own. This is not surprising given that few of us have more than a hazy understanding of how vaccines work, let alone the ability to verify that coronavirus vaccines work as vaccine companies claim.
According to our survey results, more than 90% of Danes trust the national health authorities. By last fall, more than 80% of the eligible population was willing to receive an approved vaccine, compared to less than 50% in the US. While starting with high levels of trust is important, maintaining this trust may be difficult, especially if authorities are tempted to promote vaccines that are less effective or more dangerous than others.
This finding emphasizes that trust between citizens and authorities should ideally go both ways, as authorities must trust that citizens can deal with bad news while still making responsible decisions. President Donald Trump later admitted that he had purposefully downplayed the coronavirus. In contrast, after a slow start, Danish authorities were forthright about the severity and uncertainties of the crisis. They were also open about the potential side effects of some vaccines, and in March they decided to stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Denmark initially halted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine before removing both the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines from the public vaccine program and donating 3 million spare vaccines to developing countries. This caused a several-week delay in the otherwise efficient vaccine rollout. Meanwhile, mass testing was a critical component of the solution to keep the virus under control. Denmark performed 4 million tests (75 per 100 citizens) per week at its peak in the spring of 2021. And Danish authorities promoted compliance with testing and other Covid-19 guidelines as a moral obligation — to put it another way, as the right thing to do for one another, building on the collective approach to containing the pandemic.
Moralized issues can backfire and cause conflict, which can quickly escalate into shaming and condemnation on both sides. Despite their strong support for the government’s covid-19 policies, Danes did not appear to resort to blaming and shaming each other in order to keep each other in line. In other words, most people heeded the authorities’ advice and did not attempt to police others.
Denmark was in a good position to deal with a pandemic because Danish political parties have a long history of cooperating. The government’s decision to cull all mink in Denmark in November 2020 sparked widespread criticism about the decision’s legal and health merits.
A few months later, in February, the right-wing opposition strongly disagreed with the government on the best strategy for reopening society. However, after extensive negotiations on both occasions, Denmark’s parties reached an agreement, and citizens’ feelings of polarization dissipated. The Danish opposition valued epidemic control over the potential electoral gains offered by polarization.
The final challenge is to mitigate the impact of restrictions. According to research, the pandemic’s social, financial, and health costs fuel opposition to the political system. In Denmark, high compliance and support have softened and made restrictions appear meaningful, lowering this burden.
Danes believed that the government and health authorities would make responsible and competent decisions to combat the pandemic, which they did for the most part. The Danish government and authorities, in turn, trusted the Danish people to act responsibly and adhere to the guidelines.