Fiona O’Grady describes the guilt of living in a country where lockdown restrictions are less strict than at home…
“So how is it where you are anyway, with the restrictions and everything?”
I get asked this all the time. Living in a country handling the pandemic differently from where your family and friends live has led to me feeling, of all things, very guilty. As if I don’t experience enough guilt just from having been raised Roman Catholic and attending convent schools my whole life.
Lockdown life, it’s a mess of rules and regulations with never-ending anxiety. And the rules hit differently when you’re allowed to have a good time and your friends are stuck at home.
Right now, I’m based out of Copenhagen where the Danes have handled the pandemic differently from what I’ve seen at home. Is it because of that Irish twitchy curtains mentality? Do Danes generally trust their governments? Is that why we’ve ended up with a lot more freedom while navigating this maddening pandemic?
Danes have been grumbling about how hard it has been and how difficult it is; no restaurants, you can’t throw a big party. There have been protests happening here too. But most of my friends are back at their desks already.
I text my friend Ruth, another Irish woman living here, to see if she is experiencing the same feeling of guilt that I’ve been experiencing. “It plagues me most days with mother and close friends in hell and isolation,” she replies.
Denmark, normally celebrated for pastry, good-looking people and fashion, didn’t do the full Swedish method of trying to focus on herd mentality. And, much as everyone here loves to complain about it, it’s never been as strict on the rules in Germany or France, where curfews are still in place.
Back when the lockdown originally happened, it was one of the first places in Europe to instigate restrictions, on March 13. There have been limits to the number of people you can meet with, but it’s not as black and white as one household only; my germ bubble is not one household. During peak ‘rona, bars, shops and restaurants were all shut, but it was considered perfectly reasonable to be outside of your apartment with a group of up to five people from five different households.
Considering most countries have had different ways of handling the pandemic, I’ve had it pretty easy here in Copenhagen. Back in the first wave when there was a 2km restriction in Ireland, I was cycling out of the city to jump in the sea. “I feel so bad telling you this,” I sighed to my friend who couldn’t get out of Drumcondra, while I was sitting on a pier after a lunchtime swim. “It’s giving me hope”, she replied.
For me, it still felt like gloating, I continued to feel bad for living my life. You must not show off, you’re Irish. If you do show off, it has to be done with a side of self-deprecation.
Friends in Ireland who started new jobs during the pandemic have spent the whole year working remotely and never meeting colleagues IRL. Meanwhile, I’ve joined a new shared studio space and travel to work a few days a week. We all sat in a large meeting room, a group of eight people and sanitized croissants. I was invited to the group hang Zoom calls with the lads at home (god I love my friends but I hate Zoom) as the new easy breezy fun way of connecting with your friends instead of meeting up. Back in Norrebro, I used to meet four friends IRL on Saturday afternoons outside our local pub and take it in turns going in and buying a round back in April of 2020.
The biggest difference was the mood felt bleak at home, there seemed to be no sense of being able to look forward to things. Group chat updates contained lots of “any news?” and a collective “no, none at all” and “things aren’t great”. In Copenhagen and across Denmark, there is a chance for escapism and freedom; hotels are still open, you can still make plans with your friends on the weekend. Meanwhile, the discourse on Irish Twitter is that hopefully travelling within Ireland this summer will be allowed, but with a hint of pessimism.
It felt like a huge luxury to be able to escape. My sister couldn’t drive the twenty minutes to visit our dad. I went with three friends to a summer house 100km away and did mushrooms in the woods. When things got stricter, it was still never as strict as at home. The biggest difference I’ve found is the limit on how many people you are allowed to see and the number of households. Danish people are still allowed to see their families. I don’t know anyone here who has put off seeing their parents as long as some of my Irish friends have been doing for fear of spreading the virus.
The bars and restaurants never really closed here last winter, we could still browse in shops, we kept going out. Right before Christmas, when the Irish government was ending the lockdown as the numbers were down, was the only time Denmark had more of a lockdown, with the Danish Prime minister Mette closing everything. Danes were fuming at cancelled Christmas lunches but then the government started increasing availability to testing and reintroduced big financial support packages for businesses affected around the country.
If I look at the numbers and compare them, Denmark and Ireland have pretty much had the same amount of confirmed cases, but the death rate has been higher in Ireland. Looking at all the graphs and charts comparing the figures, it doesn’t make sense to me why my friends at home are locked in their houses and I’ve been going to parties (there were only ten people, it was legal, we’d all got tested, it was fine). It’s that feeling that if it got worse at home, the health system wouldn’t be able to handle it. The Danish hospitals could handle it.
I feel a bit dirty and of course, guilty, just writing this. Imagine it. I feel bad that my friends and family who are working at testing centres, working in essential shops or administering vaccines, are making huge sacrifices while I was still going for pints.
In general, there is trust between civilians and the people in power here, so can we be trusted to not fuck up the hospitals more? There is so much more fear at home; Danes aren’t as afraid of COVID 19 and it’s impact. Having had ties to Denmark for over eight years, I’ve taken on some of the habits of taking things for granted. Danes sometimes don’t realise how good they have it. Lately, I have been forgetting how good I have it here. Like how there has been 3 million euro invested daily in testing here, so everyone who is a resident can get a free test, with results coming in within one hour. Maybe you need to queue for forty minutes to get one, but it costs nothing and helps stop the spread with consistent testing.
It is by no means a perfect utopia, with many flaws in Danish infrastructure (like the recent tragic news of the Danish government sending back Syrian refugees because it is “safe”).
As a cis-white woman living here, it’s easy to feel safe and supported in Denmark. There are robust social security systems in place, with huge support packages for the self-employed. Hospitals haven’t been completely run over. It’s pretty much free to get tested as many times as you want and you can just walk in and out of a test centre in thirty minutes; my personal record for getting tested. Why do I feel like I’m doing something wrong when I’m doing what I’m told here but not doing what the Irish people are doing, aka nothing.
The ‘rona has been dictating our lives for a while and I didn’t expect to feel so guilty about living somewhere that hasn’t been so strict on the lockdown rules. I’m waiting on that vaccine rollout and checking the dates at home wondering who will get the vaccine first. When Ruth finally managed to get back to Copenhagen after a few months at home with no flights coming back, I asked her how it felt being here. “I felt I could actually breathe”.
Would I almost prefer being at home with my friends and family, alone together, just to not feel bad about doing what I’m supposed to do here? In all honesty probably not, but, the guilt rolls on. It’s a bit pointless though.