Covid-19: Something is working in the state of Denmark

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has sent 500,000 Pfizer doses to New Zealand. (File photo)
Liselotte Sabroe/AP
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has sent 500,000 Pfizer doses to New Zealand. (File photo)

ANALYSIS: A deal with Denmark on Sunday for half a million Pfizer vaccine doses – along with 250,000 doses from Spain – has kept New Zealand’s vaccine stocks from running dry and enabled the roll-out to continue apace.

Both Denmark and New Zealand have similar size populations and young charismatic, progressive leaders.

But the key difference is that Denmark is now opening up post-Covid and most of its population is vaccinated – a position New Zealand could be in by Christmas, all going well. In other words, in the weird world of Covid-19 where progress is measured in vaccine doses, Denmark is about four months ahead of New Zealand.

So what lessons could New Zealand learn from the Scandinavian nation and can it give any clues to how New Zealand will move from here?

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Denmark became one of the first European Union nations to lift all domestic pandemic restrictions.
Claus Bech/AP
Denmark became one of the first European Union nations to lift all domestic pandemic restrictions.

New Zealand has much in common with Denmark. Both are small trading nations perceived globally as the least corrupt countries in the world.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Danish counterpart, Mette Frederiksen, are wunderkinds of the liberal international media; progressive female leaders who have carved out a reputation for practical but also inspiring leadership. Frederiksen became prime minister in 2019, two years after Ardern won the top job in New Zealand.

But if you were able to fly from Auckland to Copenhagen today you would step into a very different day-to-day reality.

Denmark has just dropped the last of its domestic pandemic restrictions, becoming the only European country to do so.

“Daily life is basically back to normal but that does not mean there won’t be any danger down the road,” Danish health minister Magnus Heunicke said on Friday.

The enviable milestone was reached through a vaccination programme which began in December last year.

More than 4.3 million Danes over the age of 12 have been double vaccinated, which is 83.5 per cent of its eligible population. Only 35 per cent of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated.

But if jabs continue here at the current pace, New Zealand could be in a similar position to the Nordic nation by the end of the year. New Zealand will then be faced with a new set of questions as it enters the next phase of managing the virus.

The next few months will be critical for Denmark and its 5.8 million people, and could serve as a glimpse into the future – or a warning – for New Zealand.

The ability of any nation’s health system to cope with Covid-19 has always been integral to any decision-making.

Even as Heunicke announced the virus was no longer categorised as what the Danes call a “socially critical” disease, he warned restrictions could return if cases and hospitalisations got to dangerous levels.

More than 353,000 Danes have contracted the virus and more than 2614 have died.

Like New Zealand, Denmark bolstered its contact tracing and testing in response to the Delta variant of Covid-19.

It was one of the first European countries to announce a lockdown, differing from neighbour Sweden which imposed few measures on public life, except social distancing, as it pursued herd immunity.

Denmark was also one of the first to start using a “corona passport” – a paper or digital phone app which shows whether a person has had a negative test result within the last 72 hours, a certificate of vaccination or proof of a previous infection two to 12 weeks earlier.

But opening up has meant learning to co-exist with Covid.

Denmark is reporting an average of 500 new positive cases of Covid-19 each day – more than half the number of the latest entire outbreak in New Zealand.

To enable it to deal with this, Denmark has more than double New Zealand’s current intensive care capacity per capita, which OECD data puts at 7.8 per 100,000 people compared with 3.6 here. But as with any health system, a big influx of cases will cause strain.

Underlying those numbers, Denmark has made a choice: to live with the virus.

And that is the dilemma now facing New Zealand’s Government: to what extent New Zealanders are prepared to live – or die – with the virus. Comparatively, only 27 people died after contracting Covid-19 so far.

Several people each day are dying from Covid in Denmark. Most of them are elderly or people with other illnesses. But if the same rate were replicated in New Zealand, Covid-19 would claim twice the number of victims as the flu currently does.

Clearly, vaccinations are key to moving forward – whatever the next step may be. New Zealand was able to buy 500,000 extra doses to tide over the roll-out ahead of bumper shipments in October because Denmark had done so well at vaccinating its population.

Whether New Zealand will reach such high vaccination rates remains to be seen but looking to Denmark as it makes its next steps gives the country a better vantage point from which to decide its next move.