COVID-19 has killed millions, disrupted the lives of billions, and left us desperately reaching for the normalcy we previously took for granted.

We yearn to enjoy social gatherings, family celebrations, and holidays without the dark, deadly threat of a pandemic hanging over us.

It is these everyday joys of being a human that we have used to judge each country’s level of normalcy, as the world may never return to its old habit of compelling people to show up in person to work, to buy groceries, or even to visit their doctor’s surgery.

Barely any nations have kept COVID-19 out completely, but some acted quickly, faced down the virus, and are lucky enough to now be emerging into a new normal.

copenhagen in denmark

Welcome to beautiful, well-governed Denmark

Denmark

Denmark removed all its restrictions on 10 September 2021.

Residents in the country no longer need to prove that they have been vaccinated or have tested negative for the virus to enter any establishments.

Visitors to Denmark are still subject to restrictions, but for people living in the country, life is back to normal.

National case numbers have risen sharply since this step was taken, but deaths per day have not yet exceeded four.

The government removed all COVID-19 measures after hitting the ground running with its vaccine programme.

76% of people in the country are now fully vaccinated – the third-highest rate in Europe, behind Portugal and Spain.

Norway

Norway lifted all internal COVID-19 restrictions on 25 September, just a fortnight after Denmark.

Sporting and cultural venues are now allowed to reach full capacity, as are restaurants, while nightclubs can reopen and operate as usual.

And since 1 October, inessential travel has been permitted once again, meaning people in Norway are free to fly wherever they want.

The country has handled COVID-19 well, cutting itself off and locking down for long stretches, which has led to relatively low infection and death rates throughout the pandemic.

Now with 77% of the population fully or partly vaccinated, the country is returning to normalcy, with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health’s chief physician Preben Aavitsland tweeting in June: “That is the pandemic over with.”

He added: “A fire chief would have said: the forest fire is out, and the danger for people and buildings is over, but there remains a little clearing up here and there, and we need to be vigilant.”

Sweden

On 29 September, Sweden got rid of all internal measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, other than wearing a mask at airports and on flights.

Both case and death numbers have fallen sharply since the country’s second wave in spring 2021, and with 68% of people fully vaccinated, Sweden is getting its pre-pandemic life back.

This marks a massive turnaround from the country’s initial response to COVID-19, which an independent government commission called “slow” and “insufficient” in October 2021.

Sweden attempted to create herd immunity, so it never closed its bars or restaurants, never locked down, and issued recommendations rather than legally binding restrictions.

More than 15,000 people died because of this misguided approach, compared to 900 in neighbouring Norway.

In December 2020, King Carl Gustaf said the strategy had “failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible.”

However, the worst seems to have passed, and things are now looking up for this Scandinavian nation.

New Zealand

With just 28 deaths from COVID–19, New Zealand has coped with the pandemic better than almost any other country.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government has decided the previous strategy of ‘zero-COVID’ should be discarded once 90% of the population has received two vaccine doses.

In October 2021, Ardern explained: “Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things.”

At the start of November, the vaccination rate stood at 70% – and with the country jabbing 10% of its people per month, it should lift all restrictions around the end of 2021.

Cases are currently spiking at a higher rate than any other in the pandemic, but deaths remain low, so the plan still seems on course.

wellington in new zealand

New Zealand has been one of the best places to be during the pandemic

Portugal

Almost all restrictions on people in Portugal have been lifted.

As of 1 October, there are no limits on the number of people who can sit together in restaurants and cafes, or the number who can attend cultural events, baptisms, and weddings.

Masks are no longer mandatory outside, though they still must be worn at large events, on public transport, and in hospitals, nursing homes, shopping malls, and supermarkets.

Much of the country’s success is down to its efficient vaccine programme, which has seen more than 87% of the population get fully vaccinated so far – the second-highest total in the world, after Gibraltar.

Australia

On 1 November, Australia strode into its new normal.

The country’s most populous regions reopened their external and internal borders after 591 days, allowing citizens to reunite with family members who they haven’t seen in at least 19 months.

All lockdowns were lifted across Australia, and New South Wales and Victoria – which contain Sydney and Melbourne, respectively – threw open their doors, allowing citizens in without quarantining.

The other four states must wait until their vaccination rates have hit 80% before they can reopen their borders, but that time should come soon.

Cases across the nation are surging, but deaths have never been high in this country of 26 million, which has lost just 2,006 people to the virus so far.

Taiwan

In late May 2021, Taiwan was finally breached by the virus, with a sudden wave of infections.

Though it was a shock for the nation, which had seemed impermeable for more than a year, deaths remained relatively low, with a peak of 28 per day, and the wave quickly subsided.

Now, restrictions are being removed or relaxed, and people can again attend indoor events, outdoor gatherings, and work without capacity limits.

You’ll still be expected to wear a mask in most venues, but you can now take it off to eat in cinemas, karaoke bars, and on public transport.

The winner of our investigation into the safest countries to move to achieved that honour by learning lessons from history.

After the 2003 SARS outbreak killed 73 people in Taiwan, the country set up the National Health Command Centre, which has been crucial in speedily imposing the right restrictions during this pandemic.

Taiwan locked down its borders on 19 March, ordered infected people to quarantine, and tracked their phones to make sure they complied. If they didn’t, they faced a fine of £26,000 – and this punishment has been enforced.

This quick, restrictive strategy and the public’s general compliance allowed the country to avoid going into lockdown – in fact, people were so enthusiastic about face masks that cases of stomach flu have dropped by 90%.

Taiwan also benefited from the goodwill it created by giving away more than 51 million face masks in 2020, to nations all over the world. In return, countries including Japan and the US have donated millions of vaccines to Taiwan.

As a result of this and Taiwan’s own Medigen vaccine, 72% of the population have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Singapore

Singapore is almost back to normal.

With 80% of the city-state’s residents fully vaccinated, and booster jabs now being administered, restrictions have mostly been lifted.

As case numbers rose in September 2021, the government decided to limit social interactions in public to two people, but this restriction is expected to lift before the end of the year.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching gave short shrift to those complaining about this measure.

She said: “We are just spoiled kids if we keep on harping on our disappointment about dining and freedoms… let's do our best to help, instead of wasting our energies on tantrums and bitching.”

In the long term, Singapore’s ministry of health is looking towards a future in which an unrestricted public suffers up to 2,000 cases of COVID-19 per year, according to Reuters.

South Korea

After a slow start, South Korea’s vaccination programme has put the pedal to the metal, with more than 76% of people now fully vaccinated.

This has allowed the country – which has maintained low numbers of cases and deaths throughout the pandemic – to ease back on its restrictions, starting 1 November.

The government has stopped recommending that 30% of each business’s employees should work at home, up to 499 people can now gather for weddings and protests, and outdoor sporting events can let in 50% of the venue’s capacity.

Also, up to 100 people can attend concerts and musicals (whether they’re vaccinated or not), there are no longer any curfews on restaurants and cafes, and gyms don’t have to restrict shower usage, treadmill speed, or the number of beats per minute in their music.

People can once again visit high-risk venues like indoor gyms, bars, karaoke bars, and nightclubs, as long as they have proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from the past 48 hours.

The government is encouraging citizens to keep wearing masks, regularly ventilating rooms, and testing themselves if they develop symptoms – but if everything goes well, restrictions will be fully removed in February 2022.

Honourable mention: Pakistan

Pakistan hasn’t completely returned to normal life, but it’s getting there.

On 31 October, all restrictions were lifted in Islamabad, Gilgit, Mandi Bahauddin, and Mirpur – home to a combined 1.6 million people – because the cities’ vaccination rates had topped 60%.

40% to 60% of people are vaccinated in the areas that include major cities Peshawar and Rawalpindi, which contain another five million residents.

As soon as more than 60% of the inhabitants in these areas are vaccinated, they can also go back to their restriction-free lives.

Pakistan still has at least a few months to go before it removes restrictions on all its 221 million people, but this is characteristic of its systematic approach throughout the pandemic.

Everything else being equal, you’re 16.3 times more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 in the UK than in Pakistan.

Summary

There are caveats to this list, of course.

Firstly, no country has fully returned to normalcy. The spread of a pandemic changes a nation and its people forever.

The only places currently enjoying the same life they were before COVID-19 are the ones the disease hasn’t touched, like American Samoa and Tuvalu.

Circumstances can also change, and the removal of restrictions may result in increased case and death numbers in some countries.

Just because a country has lifted restrictions against COVID-19, doesn’t mean the virus can’t return – potentially in new, dangerous variants.