‘My child will not be a Covid-19 guinea pig’: Denmark reopens schools and shops, sparking concerns from parents

Nordic country was the second in Europe to impose a lockdown and, having seen low levels of coronavirus fatalities, is now lifting restrictions. Rosie Collington speaks to those sending their children back to school

Wednesday 15 April 2020 11:23 BST
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Parents with their children stand in queue waiting to get inside Stengaard School north of Copenhagen, Denmark
Parents with their children stand in queue waiting to get inside Stengaard School north of Copenhagen, Denmark

Schools and shops across Denmark are reopening after a month, but while health officials say the move is evidence of the country’s early lockdown success, some parents fear the lifting of restrictions has come too soon.

As part of the first phase in the government’s reopening strategy, 650,000 children are returning to daycare centres and primary schools. Universities, churches, cinemas and shopping malls will remain closed until at least 10 May, and a ban on congregations of more than 100 people will remain in place until August.

But Judit, whose young daughter has type-1 diabetes, tells The Independent that she is afraid of sending her child back to school.

“I’m worried that children are being used as an experiment and, if I’m honest, I am not convinced by the letter we received from the school listing the additional safety measures they’re implementing.”

Her daughter has, however, been desperate to go back to class.

“Her hospital advised us that it was safe, so we’ve agreed to let her go back this week. But my concern is still there – we need to be extremely careful.”

A number of Facebook groups have been set up by worried parents, including one under the name “my child will not be a Guinea pig for Covid-19”, which already has over 39,000 members.

For Jude, her nine-year-old’s lessons will be held outside, which has reassured her. Children have been asked to wear suitable clothing and at another school in Fyn, the head teacher put a call out for donations of large camping tents.

“I am very happy to send her. There are of course risks, and I realise we are the test case,” she says.

Denmark, Europe’s second country to impose a lockdown, has not seen the same levels of coronavirus fatalities as has rocked the west of the continent. Measures were put in place by the government on 11 March – before it had even reported its first death.

More than 6,500 people have been infected in the country, and 299 have died.

For Judit, concerns still remain on what would happen if her husband gets sick.

A tent and toilet wagon are delievered to a school in Stoevring, Denmark as classes are run outside

“We moved to Denmark recently and, as his business is new here, we aren’t eligible for financial support from the government, so he still needs to go to work.”

Trade unions are a key political stakeholder in Denmark, with 70 per cent of the working population holding trade union membership. The measures introduced by the government throughout the pandemic have been developed in negotiation with trade unions, as well as industry bodies – a decision-making structure that has precedence in the country’s tripartite wage bargaining agreements.

Elisa Rimpler from the Danish Union of Early Childhood and Youth Educators (BUPL) says they are following all of the government guidelines, but conceded the task at hand was “extremely difficult”.

“That being said, the early childhood education and youth workers are not simply passive actors in this situation. BUPL helps the authorities make qualified decisions and find solutions to many complex issues. The Danish Model has proved to be strong in situations of crisis like this.”

Like many countries, Denmark’s response to the coronavirus has been driven by the ambition to “flatten the curve” of cases and limit acute pressure on health care services. But the early measures were also intended to buffer the economic impacts of coronavirus.

During a press conference last week, prime minister Mette Frederiksen said the country was “going the right way” in tackling the pandemic.

“We are now on the second flattened curve in the graph, meaning there is a hospital bed and respirator for those who need it.”

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Denmark’s unemployment figures soared, as struggling companies laid off employees at an unprecedented rate. Though costly, the government hopes the 2.6bn Danish kroner support package for businesses and employees will not only support individuals to remain at home, but will facilitate recovery from the anticipated pandemic-induced financial crisis.

Danes have overall been supportive of the government’s decisions in response to coronavirus. A poll conducted at the beginning of April found that Frederiksen’s approval rating had doubled in the month since the outbreak reached Europe. But this doesn’t mean individuals – particularly parents and those who continue to work – are fearless either.

Klaus Hoeyer, a professor at the University of Copenhagen’s department of public health, is now leading a new research project exploring how Danes are coping with the coronavirus pandemic. He says “From a public health perspective, it makes sense opening up the nurseries and schools first because of a low risk at the population level, but for the individual family it might speak to their worst fears about coronavirus – it does not matter if few are likely to be hit hard, if they fear being one of them.

“And families differ. They might not fear for the child, but for a family member from a high-risk group. It’s important that we remain sensitive to that.”

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