Thomas Crosbie, originally from Newfoundland, is a sociologist and associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College.
At the beginning of the global pandemic, the “Canadians in Denmark” Facebook group was gripped by a simple question: Should Canadians who live in Denmark go home to ride it out, or should they stay put?
As a reminder, Denmark so far has been much worse hit than Canada – the country has seen 1,124 cases per million people, as compared to Canada’s 717 – but its quick and decisive response has led to an enviable flattening of the curve. Just this week, schools have begun a soft reopening, and since Wednesday my 7-year-old daughter has been back in class for a few hours per day. Certainly the country is doing something right.
I came to Copenhagen in 2017 with my wife and our two small children. By now, both kids are pretty much Danes. Our youngest, who is 4, tells me it’s easier to speak in Danish than English. As much as my wife and I struggle with learning the language and establishing ourselves in our careers here, our children have flourished. And yet, we are and will always remain immigrants, lacking family and the large network of friends we have back home. Flying back to Canada would have allowed us to benefit from a grandparent or two (after the self-isolation period, at any rate). Since we both work full-time, a live-in babysitter would have been a godsend. Why then did we choose to stay?
First, Danes are experts at staying at home. Famously, there is a Danish word – hygge – which encompasses something like a philosophy of coziness. The word is ubiquitous and it reflects a striking difference between Canada and Denmark. Danes pride themselves not on the quality, cost, exclusivity or even taste of their consumer goods, but rather how these goods contribute collectively to making life more enjoyable. Is your house nice and cozy? Do you like being there? Then it is hyggelig.
Canadians like their homes to be nice as well, of course. The difference is in the attitude. You aren’t “stuck” at home in Denmark, you’re just at home having a cozy time. The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) that plagues young Canadians is thus far an unknown phenomenon.
Valuing staying at home in calm and comfortable surroundings sounds trivial, but it’s actually a critical piece missing in our mental health care in Canada. The most recent data suggest that the world should expect about a year and half of intermittent periods of quarantine. The concept of “social distance” has become an axiom of everyday life that will stay with us, perhaps for the rest of our lives. It matters enormously that we untangle the guilt and shame that we nowadays associate with staying at home – of not being at work and not going out.
Second, the reason why Danes are able to stay at home comfortably during this crisis is obvious and simple. Public sector employees are paid to work from home or, if child care or other responsibilities prevent them from doing their normal tasks at home, they are still paid their normal wages. The government has announced that similar protections are being extended to the private sector, with employees being paid by the government up to 75 per cent of their normal salary to work (if they can) from home.
This is not a soft-hearted but foolhardy overextension of Denmark’s famous safety net, but rather a heard-headed investment in stabilizing the private sector and protecting small businesses from collapse. The gamble is that by absorbing the very large direct cost of the quarantine, the government saves the Danish economy from the long-tailed indirect costs of companies folding and their former employees retraining.
Choosing to stay in Denmark over Canada became for us a simple decision. If you have to be quarantined, wouldn’t it be better to be cozy? More seriously, if you know you will be stuck at home for months and months to come, wouldn’t it be better to be somewhere that already encourages this type of lifestyle (albeit not so stringently under normal circumstances)?
Every country brave enough to confront the demands associated with heading off this crisis will recognize that policies enforcing social distance are critical to success. Policies are however secondary to culture. By reframing the meaning of staying at home in positive terms, we may help soften the blow of quarantining measures while also increasing compliance. Stay home. Be cozy.
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