The Guardian • Issue #2001


Letter from Denmark

Cyclist near Dybbølsbro in Copenhagen on a cold winter day. Photo: Kristoffer Trolle (CC BY 2.0)

In July of 2020, I was given “special permission” by the border authorities to leave Australia and join my partner in Denmark. For almost two years, I was there, as well as in Germany and Scotland. I would like to give readers an impression of what it felt like for a Communist Party member to be on the ground in north-western Europe during a time of great change.

As I travelled to Denmark, the major issue of the time was the Novel Coronavirus – although we knew relatively little about the pandemic then. I had passed through empty airports with shuttered shops, boarded planes with perhaps 15 people on board, and all the way I wore a face shield and a facemask that I changed every two hours. I lost count of the number of times I used alcohol hand cleaner. Changi Airport in Singapore felt calm and confident, with full safety measures in place.

Arriving in Denmark, I felt like I was on another planet. People spoke of the pandemic in the past tense, as though it were no longer an issue at all. True, I had to “self-isolate,” but that was a “recommendation.” In fact, Denmark prided itself on the fact that all of its measures were “recommendations.”

As soon as my two weeks of self-quarantine were up, my partner and I agreed to continue our protective regimes: face masks in public, shopping at 7.00 pm when there few people, a routine of disinfecting all items purchased at the shop, minimal public transport, and walks or bicycle rides in the countryside far from the madding crowd. Even one of these items was by no means common practice at the time.

Where were we? We were a “commie couple” in a small village in the countryside of the southern Jutland region of Denmark. With relatively few people around, life was easier. True, we did need to stay for a time in Germany and Scotland due to visa reasons. And because Canberra had effectively abandoned Australian overseas, I ended up applying for temporary Danish residency so I could stay put for a while. I even managed to pass two compulsory Danish language tests – for the sake of “integration.”

Perhaps a comment sums up the Danish approach. When I was receiving a flu shot at the local chemist, the pharmacist asked about Australia, and then observed: “we are much freer in Denmark with facemasks.”

True, the Danish authorities were dragged reluctantly into introducing half-hearted measures when the second and third waves hit. But these were removed as soon as possible. The Danes were mightily put out by the fact that Germany and other European countries on more than one occasion designated Denmark a “red zone,” one that could potentially put other countries at risk. In late 2021, they also rolled out the vaccine – only Pfizer-BioNTech – quite rapidly. Not a great feat for a country of 5.8 million, I must admit, but the authorities certainly claimed it was.

Then they simply let it go. It looked for all the world like they had lost control, but the spin doctors well and truly earned their bonuses. The emphasis constantly shifted to whatever statistic seemed to be relatively better. One day it was the relatively low percentage of positive tests, the next day the high number of tests, the following day low Intensive Care admissions, and then people dying not “of COVID” but “with COVID.” At 2pm each day, my partner and I would discuss the latest spin, and alternate between laughing and shaking our heads. Meanwhile, the virus ripped through children, infected families, until nearly everyone – apart from ourselves – in Denmark had come down with the latest Omicron variant, with not a few infected more than once.

As time wore on, I began to notice a curious phenomenon. Denmark prides itself on individual “choice,” on the primacy of the individual. But when it comes to government measures, people follow them without question. At times, this became absurd. My partner had to travel to Germany in late 2021. Germany had always followed clear health measures, with increase and decrease of these measures determined by widely-publicised criteria. At the time, Germany required facemasks on trains; Denmark did not. On the Denmark-Germany train, she noticed that as soon as the train crossed the German border, all the Danes on board pulled out their facemasks and put them on. If the local government says so, you should do so. As to why, do not ask.

We had become rather accustomed to our relative seclusion, especially during the long and cold northern winter of 2021-2022. But return to Australia at last became feasible, so we began planning.

As we did so, the situation in Ukraine exploded. We watched anxiously, and decided to change our flights for an earlier departure. Why?

For me, there were two reasons. First, common people in northwestern Europe were asking: will there be war here? War between European countries, among whom there are many unresolved border issues. Second, there was the mainstreaming of fascism. For me, it was shocking to see how easily this happened. Racial hatred flared up in an instant, directed at Russians. This Russophobia had been nurtured for many a long year, and now it became mainstream. Fascist slogans were uttered by the prime minister herself, a Social-Democrat. “Slava Ukraina,” she said, “Glory to Ukraine.” And “heroiam slava,” or “glory to the heroes.” A spokeperson for the Nordic Resistance Movement, which has a large chapter in Denmark, appeared on DR, the state-run media. DR knew full well what it was doing. And the government moved quickly to facilitate “volunteers,” who of course came from the Nordic Resistance Movement, to go and fight in Ukraine. Fascism has always had deep roots in the Nordic countries, so this should not have surprised and shocked me, but it did. Fascism was on the march, and we had to get out.

I should add that all this did not translate into a ready acceptance of refugees from the western parts of Ukraine. For some time now, the Social-Democratic government had been demonising eastern Europeans for trying to “take” Danish jobs and “make use” of what remains of the Danish welfare system. It was fine to utter phrases, send weapons and “volunteers” to Ukraine. But Ukrainians themselves are not welcome. For Denmark, they are not western but eastern. Very soon it was announced than any refugees could stay for two years, with perhaps a third year, but they would not be “integrated” into Danish society and would need to return to help “rebuild” Ukraine.

In the midst of all these developments, I was reminded of my maternal grandfather, who once responded to my question as to why their large family emigrated from The Netherlands to Australia in the 1950s. “I have lived through two wars,” he said. “I did not want my children and grandchildren to experience another.” When I left Denmark, war had not yet broken out among European countries, but the anticipation and fear were there.

What was it like to return to Australia after almost two years away? At the time of writing, I am emotionally exhausted, since I have seen more people in a few days than I had seen in two years. I may be wrong, but I have noticed in these gathering an increased effort to maintain a cocoon. True, this has always been a feature of Australian life, but it seems to have been taken to a much higher degree. Too much in the world is changing, the geopolitical order since 1945 is rapidly coming to an end. So best to ignore all that and try to keep to a way of life that is in a real sense already gone. At least these are early impressions.

By contrast, among CPA comrades we can and do discuss these vital matters. This is very encouraging and really a lifeline. I am enjoying engaging more regularly and somewhat more directly with comrades. These engagements are now in the same time zone, instead of middle-of-the-night meetings when I was in Denmark. And I notice more and more the growth and energy of the CPA, and all that is now flowing from the Fourteenth National Congress.

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