My family made a big move this summer, relocating from Maquoketa to Odense, Denmark, following a job offer and the opportunity to spend a few years traveling and exploring. Some of you have asked that I keep this community updated on our adventures, and the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press has generously given me space to share reflections from our new life here. 

This particular piece may be controversial — for America, that is. Nothing I’m about to write is controversial for Denmark.

I’ve been a pretty COVID-careful mom. I kept my kids home for most of last year, grateful for Maquoketa Community School District’s flexible options and dynamite teaching staff. So I was concerned about the timing of our move this summer. America was quick out of the gate with our vaccine program, and President Biden was talking about July 4 as “Independence Day” from the virus, under the assumption that enough Americans would go get their shots. 

Meanwhile, Denmark was behind with vaccines, making their way slowly down their age brackets. 

I’d been vaccinated back in March in the U.S. If I’d been in Denmark, I wouldn’t have been eligible until late July. Closely following the European vaccine rollout in anticipation of our move, I recognized how much privilege Americans had with our early and easy access to vaccines.

Turns out, Denmark knew what it was doing. Their vaccine program may have been slow but it was certainly steady. With each new age group that became eligible, uptake was very high. A whopping 95% of Danes over age 50 are fully vaccinated.

Today — knock on wood — Denmark has largely put the pandemic in the past. My kids are having a perfectly normal school year: no masks or distancing or cohorting or any of the other pandemic terms we’ve all become familiar with. And six weeks into the school year — no cases of COVID at school, either. 

We recently went on a class field trip to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and enjoyed a gorgeously sunny and restriction-free Danish day. Last night, I caught The Kilkenny’s in concert at a local music venue. I toasted — skål! — with the Danes around me, dancing and singing along to Irish folk songs. As I walked back to our apartment through the cobblestone streets, I saw busy nightclubs and heard loud bars. 

We’ve packed our masks away. It was actually a bit jarring to see American colleagues wearing masks on a Zoom call the other day. “Oh, yeah,” I thought to myself. “America is still dealing with that.”

This return to pre-pandemic life isn’t because Denmark is just lucky — or foolish. This return to normalcy is a privilege that the Danes have worked together to earn. 

Denmark was among the first countries in Europe to close schools, send employees home, and shut its borders in the early days of the pandemic.

In March of 2020, Denmark’s much-beloved queen delivered an address to the nation where she sternly told Danes to follow lockdown rules without exception: no cheating for special celebrations. “This is not acceptable behavior,” she told her people in Danish. “It is thoughtless. And it is inconsiderate.”

And the Danish people — a very thoughtful and considerate people — followed the rules. They wore masks, largely without complaint. They submitted to frequent mass testing. Even children were tested once a week as part of their normal school day. They appropriately social distanced in their queues at the bageris and the butiks. I’m told that in Copenhagen, citizens even coordinated their morning strolls and jogs to ensure that everyone went in a clockwise direction, minimizing face-to-face encounters. 

There were small protests here and there, sure. Some people broke the rules for birthday parties, despite the queen’s lecture. But by all accounts from the people I have talked with here about their pandemic experience, Danes trusted the science and the doctors, trusted the government and their queen, and trusted that if everyone did their part now, it would pay off later.

This societal trust — a cornerstone of Danish life — is clearly seen in the Danes’ acceptance of the COVID vaccine. As of September 21, Denmark has fully vaccinated between 75-80% of its population. A whopping 86% of eligible citizens (12 years and up) have received at least one shot. The United States lags far behind, at 55% of the population fully vaccinated, despite its months-long advantage at the starting line.

When we first moved here, I had to show my CDC vaccination card in order to buy a drink at the bar, a sandwich at the café, and my entrance ticket at the museum. These “vaccine passports” were a moderate inconvenience but one that society accepted without too much drama or controversy. And I use the past tense in speaking about them, because — thanks to their massive success — Denmark has now phased out the vaccine passport program. We’re beyond that now.

Danes know that this freedom isn’t guaranteed and that it may not last forever.

Although the Danish government has declared COVID to “no longer be a critical threat,” a spike in cases could lead to re-imposed restrictions, especially as winter approaches. But they’re ready for it. They know that with a quick and united response, they’ll get through the tunnel with more speed and less suffering than if everyone battles and resists.

For now, I’m enjoying the normal. I love that my kids can just be kids and that pandemic life is becoming a mere memory for them.

I don’t write this piece to gloat. I write this piece because we desperately must learn lessons from this pandemic’s trauma and suffering.

I write this piece because the unity I have witnessed here has been instrumental in overcoming the pandemic and is in stark contrast to the extreme divisiveness in America. Another expat living in my new town told me that Danes took seriously their “moral responsibility as good citizens and good Danes” to comply with COVID restrictions and testing and vaccinations.

The Danish path through the pandemic wasn’t without its challenges. Its political leaders certainly disagreed at many steps along the way. But leaders both locally and nationally were committed to following the science and to negotiating compromises, instead of digging into their opposing trenches.

Danes trusted the government to look out for their best interest, and the government trusted the Danish people to do the right thing.

As I write this, America is about to open its vaccine program to 5-11 year-olds. With two children in that age bracket, I’m envious. Europe will likely once again lag behind America.

My husband and I have talked about whether we take a trip back home just to get the kids vaccinated, but then we realized that with the infection rate still raging out of control in America, we’d likely be putting them at more risk. Instead, we’ll approach this with a Danish attitude and trust in our neighbors and community to continue to keep us safe as we wait for the kids’ turn for their ‘jab’ (as the Europeans call it). 

And we’ll enjoy the beauty of all this normal — a gift from science and a gift from all these sensible, responsible, vaccinated Danes surrounding us.

Jessica Kean is a former Maquoketa resident and city council member who last summer moved to Denmark with her husband and two children.