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Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden are resuming their pre-pandemic life, despite the delta variant risks. What's their secret?
In parts of Europe, enjoying a pre-pandemic social life, or at least a close version of it, is no longer a far-off dream.
Fully vaccinated people in the Netherlands can go dancing in crammed clubs and can attend parties without having to keep social distance from 25 September. Instead, the government will begin mandating vaccine passes, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a press conference Tuesday.
Denmark abandoned all COVID-19 restrictions last week, becoming the first EU country to go return entirely to pre-pandemic daily life. No masks or even proof of vaccination are necessary to go to concerts or gyms.
In late August, Danish health minister Magnus Heunicke, said the government no longer saw COVID-19 as a "socially critical disease." This approach effectively ends the ministry's mandate to implement measures such as national closures and requirements for coronavirus passes.
Joining the league will be Sweden, which has stood out among European countries for its relatively hands-off response to the pandemic. Most restrictions, including limitations on private and public gatherings and the advice to work from home, will expire by the end of September, Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren announced earlier this month.
Travelers to these countries are still required to be tested and quarantine upon their arrival if they are not fully vaccinated.
Delta variant looms
Denmark and Sweden both have a relatively high vaccination rate. According to the University of Oxford's Our World in Data project, in Denmark more than 80% of eligible adults are fully vaccinated and in Sweden, over 70% are vaccinated. "Among the most vulnerable of our patients and citizens, the vaccination rate is more than nine out of ten," said Allan Randrup Thomsen, virologist at the University of Copenhagen.
In the Netherlands, the vaccination rate stands at about 60%, But caretaker health minister Hugo de Jonge hopes that rewarding more freedoms to residents, in tandem with a vaccine mandate, will boost the country's vaccination rollout, according to the public broadcaster NOS.
Easing restrictions comes at a time when infection rates are rising in some EU countries and the rest of the world, mostly due to the highly contagiousdelta variant. The latest update to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, (ECDC)'s map shows far fewer red zones compared to previous weeks, but it also highlights the radically varied status of the pandemic across Europe.
In countries with slower vaccine rollout, the virus is still raging.
With only 20% of its population fully vaccinated, Bulgaria has resorted to limiting social life and imposing more restrictions on public life and businesses. Despite a surge in infections, most Balkan countries have very few restrictions in place.
But even countries with higher vaccination rates are now experiencing a rise in infections.
Despite having vaccinated about 60% of eligible adults, Austria is seeing a surge in new cases and has therefore shortened the validity period of negative PCR tests, a mandatory document for entering most public places.
Norway, the Scandinavian neighbor of Denmark and Sweden, is experiencing a new wave of infections, despite having a vaccination rate of about 70%, the ECDC data shows.
In late May, the Danish government presented its vaccine pass, in the form of an app, a printed QR code, or a green bar for people who had tested negative.
When such measures were mandated in some European countries, like France, Italy, and Greece, the curbs often sparked resistance and in some cases, demonstrations.
But Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark enjoy a high level of trust in authorities , which experts say has given the countries a leg up in fighting the pandemic. It made it much easier for the governments to carry out tracking programs.
"We had a large testing program, which allowed us to track the infected persons very locally, and we had local lockdowns that worked very effectively," Camilla Holten Moller, a Statens Serum Institut epidemiologist, told DW. "We were able to do so simply because the Danes historically have a high level of trust in their health authorities and vaccine programs."
The decision-makers in the three countries are realistic about the possibility of new outbreaks in the fall and especially breakthrough cases, but they have set their policy goals on keeping the virus under control and reducing the coronavirus' strain on hospitals.
"I don't think that Denmark will have to go into national lockdown again. We have proven that our large test system allows us to control the outbreaks with local lockdowns," Holten Moller said.
The Dutch cabinet will be monitoring the number of COVID-19 related hospital and ICU admissions, rather than looking at the number of infections, caretaker health minister Hugo de Jonge said in a letter to parliament, according to the public broadcaster NOS.
The COVID endgame of the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden is a delicate balancing act: Containing the pandemic with restrictions and protections, and carefully resuming pre-pandemic life. High vaccination rates mean the countries can contain COVID-19's worst outcomes — hospitalization and death — with fewer restrictions.