On the 17th of March, 5 days after Denmark announced its official COVID lockdown, I received a surreptitious Facebook message from a Danish friend. ‘I’ve heard around they are going to make a full ban of going out of your house.’ At this point in time, every day seemed to last a year, and no one really knew how things might be developing. I asked her where she had heard this news, and she simply said ‘friends’, ones she trusted. She recommended I get to the store quickly. Not yet sure what to make of this new information, within an hour I received yet another message from another Danish colleague informing me of the same thing. I hurried out of the house to the supermarket, where the streets and shops were packed with people. Did they know what I knew? But where was this information coming from? How was it being circulated? Who had access to this ‘Danish whisper network’ and what would I have done if some friendly Danes hadn’t taken pity on me? How many foreigners were completely in the dark about this new information – circulating hours before any official government briefing?
In the end, there was no such tightening of the lockdown and it all turned out to be exactly that – a rumor. Nevertheless, this story is reflective of the wider pattern which emerged in the early days of the lockdown. It is often remarked upon by Danes that Denmark is a small country where everyone knows everyone else – and these events left me wondering if this was quite literally true. Did all Danes talk and come up with common theories about what was about to happen? True or no – most of us were desperate for any insights in early days where fear was high and information scarce. This emerged into a pattern over the first few pandemic days – news of an upcoming press conference would circulate as rumor a few hours in advance, followed by confirmation in local newspapers, and then finally the event. What exactly the conference would cover was the matter of much speculation and conversation on the ‘whisper network’. The government conferences themselves were (and are) presented entirely in Danish, and follow up briefings again, in Danish. At first, a few of my Danish colleagues volunteered themselves as my interlocutor – updating me via Facebook messenger what was being said (in broad strokes). I would tell them what I was worried about (border closures, restrictions on moving house) and they would keep an ear out for specifically relevant information. It was a lifeline.
I am an American researcher living in Denmark. In many ways, this puts me in an incredibly privileged position. Denmark is undoubtedly one of the best places to be during the COVID-19 outbreak. The action the government took was quick and decisive. Danes implicitly trust their government – so adherence to policies is high. And from what I can tell, the Danish government is doing their best to provide financial aid to suffering industries (if not to the EU itself – quite controversially). But one thing I noticed, as the lockdown was established, the borders shut and the tourists left, was the seemingly rapid disappearance of information provided in English. Now, the Danes pride themselves on being a bi-lingual country. I remember being constantly told in the run-up to my move that I would be ‘fine’ because ‘everyone’ speaks great English. But of course, this is an incredibly simplistic view which completely underestimates how proud the Danes are of their language. Naturally, there is a strongly held belief amongst Danes that for foreigners (as they provocatively call us) who choose to live here, learning the language is obligatory. While this (somewhat contradictory) approach to language use might be uncomfortable at some times, during a pandemic, it becomes very difficult indeed.
In recent weeks, things have gotten more sophisticated. Facebook has become a place for foreigners in Denmark to come together and support each other. Initially, Danish speakers in the group began to voluntarily provide ‘live translations’ of press conferences in the Expats in Copenhagen page. Later this become more formalized, with people voluntarily providing translations of government documents and daily ‘key points’ about what had been announced. One man, ‘the Repat Dane’ still provides daily video updates where he discusses not only the press conferences but general comments on Danish life in the lockdown. The comment threads on these posts are typically filled with questions from ex-pats in Denmark – what did they say about foreign spouses? What can I do if I have lost my job? What do I do if my visa isn’t renewed? The practical and emotional impacts of the language gap are very real.
Of late I have taken matters in my own hands and have started (with the help of google translate) to keep myself more up to date with local news. Politiken, in particular, has been my news source of choice – based on almost no real data, except that my friends read it. Again, being only new to Denmark, I don’t have much of a sense of the most reliable news sources. This approach has proved enlightening – if somewhat disheartening, as the paper seems to my eyes extremely insular, typically only commenting on Danish stories rather than the global pandemic. Still, the failure of my google translate software to understand corona-virus specific terms like respirator or facemask has led to some very amusing ‘Danglish’. Add to this the Danes penchant for puns that only they seem to understand, and even rendered (clumsily) into English, a Danish newspaper can be a minefield.
The challenges of obtaining accurate information about what was going on around me has made me think about how we can tackle language in a global pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the nation-states of the world have focused on providing information in their majority language – and yet is this really a suitable methodology in such a globalized world. While countries called for their citizens to ‘return home’ in the frantic middle weeks of March, I am sure many like myself, tied by work or other obligations, could not or chose not to heed those calls. COVID-19 does not respect national boundaries and certainly traditional language geographies. The result can be that ex-pats end up living a sort of double life – obtaining more of their news from their ‘home’ country but living in another place which may have very different conditions. An English friend remarked to me how nerve-wracking it was seeing the Danes walking about so freely, when all her family and friends, and her newsfeeds, attested to the much stricter measures in force in the UK. She found herself, she noted, unintentionally mimicking the English style lockdown, simply because it was she heard about the most.
Nevertheless, it is true that most Danes speak English and despite the notorious difficulties in entering their social circles, most ex-pats in Denmark could probably find a way of obtaining the information they need. But the situation is not so easy in other countries. In one of Europe’s most stricken countries, Italy, information has and continues to be provided in Italian from the government. However, Italy is also a very diverse country with notably large communities of migrant communities for example from Bangladesh. In cities like Venice, government workers struggled to communicate to Bangladeshi residents what the lockdown was, why it was being imposed and even what ‘coronavirus’ meant. It is perhaps not surprising when some of the earliest cases in Bangladesh occurred in people travelling from Italy. In a pandemic context, effective communication has become a matter of life and death. In Modena, a local language school took it upon itself to start translating official government documents into more languages for circulation – leaving one to wonder exactly why such a task wasn’t already being done by the Italian government. While Japan is (as of early May) suffering greatly from the virus – it’s main news provide NHK has taken positive steps of providing its news coverage in 18 different languages.
I am not a linguist or a policymaker. I understand the practical implications of providing information in multiple languages, particularly when the situation changes so quickly. However, my personal experience of COVID-19 has highlighted the way that grassroots community initiatives are essential to maintaining the health and wellbeing of diverse populations. But also that such initiatives must be seriously considered by governments. In times of crisis, disease has a powerful way of defining who is ’in’ and who is ’out’ of a community. Language is but one of those fault lines (to say nothing of course in the massive rise in racial hate incidents). As the lockdown and social distancing measures seem here to stay, it is imperative that governments turn their attention to more inclusive language use and make sure residents, regardless of mother tongue, are engaged and informed in the official response.
About the Author: Kristin Hussey is a postdoctoral researcher at the Medical Museion and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Centre for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR) working on a project called Body Time. @kristin_hussey