Opinion

Why Denmark beat COVID and the U.S. didn't

In a pandemic, trust in science and government is critical

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

Denmark is beating COVID. The Danish government recently announced the virus is no longer a "critical threat" there, and lifted its vaccination and mask requirements for indoor activities. Denmark's death toll per million citizens over the course of the pandemic is just 22 percent of the U.S.'s, and daily deaths there have fallen to under 10. Our deaths are again running at more than 2,000 a day. Why the huge difference? Trust. A survey by researchers Michael Bang Petersen and Alexander Bor found that more than 90 percent of Danes trust their national health authorities and public decision makers, The Washington Post reported this week. As a result, 86 percent of eligible Danes have been vaccinated. In the U.S., trust in expertise, government, the media, and institutions has collapsed. Vaccinations are lagging below 50 percent in many states, and we may add another 100,000 deaths this fall and winter to our grim total of 675,000. The pandemic still casts a deep shadow over our lives.

A society cannot function without a basic level of trust. The credibility void is filled with disinformation, conspiracy theories, cynicism, division, and resentment. The effects are plain to see: In Washington, consensus is dead and compromise virtually impossible. Trust in elections, the foundation of democracy, is eroding like a beach in a hurricane. In the face of all evidence, tens of millions of Americans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and that rigorously tested, lifesaving vaccines already administered to more than 200 million Americans — and billions worldwide — are dangerous and "experimental." People shun a simple shot largely because they see it as a form of surrender. In red states, the unvaccinated are flooding overwhelmed hospitals; Idaho has adopted "crisis standards of care," authorizing burned-out staff to ration beds to those most likely to survive. Meanwhile, in Denmark, crowds are flocking to concerts and bars to celebrate their freedom. Divided, we fall.

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