About two weeks ago, an astonishing video from Ukraine appeared online. Russia hadn’t yet invaded at that point, but the video purported to show war breaking out in dramatic fashion. A fighter jet looped low over a town on an inky blue night and fired a missile at a target on the ground. It exploded in a starburst of orange flame, before a ribbon of pinkish, laser-like projectiles chased the plane away across the sky.
The clip was short but thrilling, and with tensions in and around Ukraine already rising fast, it was soon spreading like the Omicron variant — shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter. In time, though, a small problem emerged. It turned out that there was no plane, no missile striking the ground and no colorful return fire. This video that people around the world were watching in their thousands was not live footage from the brutal conflict starting in Europe, but a clip from a computer game called Arma 3, which was released nearly a decade ago.
In early and mid-October, many Dutch newspapers made for grim reading. ‘In some towns… a third of the population lies sick’, one outlet reported, while another warned rising infections meant ‘in the hospitals there is no more room to take in seriously ill patients’. In the Hague, journalists reported many nurses had fallen ill, while in Maastricht the mayor ordered cinemas to close and banned public events. In Amsterdam, where up to a third of children were reportedly ill, the Standaard newspaper reported that ‘schools seem to be the hearths [of infection]’, and warned school closures were likely. Further east, mayors warned that ‘if the illness does not abate soon… [we] will proceed to complete or partial closure of the cafes.’
That was in October 1918, during the pandemic of Spanish Flu. A hundred and three years later, many things are eerily familiar: the concerns about children spreading sickness to older relatives, the worries about healthcare being overstretched, the anger at events being cancelled.
The Netherlands attempts a UK-style reopening – without the UK’s low level of infections
In his press conference in early May, Mark Rutte sounded cautiously upbeat. “We have achieved something together” and “got the spread of the virus under control”, the Dutch Prime Minister said, with “the figures… developing in a favourable direction for a few weeks now”. Although hospitals were still badly strained, the authorities were, Rutte said, willing to take the calculated risk of letting restaurants and cafes reopen mostly as normal, as long as they respected distancing rules. Museums, gyms and brothels would probably also be able to reopen soon, as part of a sequence of “steps to slowly but surely open up the economy and society again… [under] the absolute precondition… that the figures for hospital admissions and intensive care beds remain under control”. The country was heading, he said, “towards a new normal, in which we can lead a normal life”.
That was in May 2020, roughly twenty-five thousand deaths ago. Yet almost exactly a year later, in May 2021, the rhetoric remains strikingly similar. In this week’s press conference, Rutte again said that although the pandemic remains a serious threat, and infections remain high, “the direction is good”. Although hospitals are still badly strained, the authorities are willing to take the calculated risk of allowing restaurants and cafes to reopen mostly as normal, as long as they respect distancing rules. Museums, gyms and brothels will probably also be able to reopen soon, as part of a sequence of steps to open the economy up again. The country is taking, Rutte says, “the first step on the way back to normal life”.
Out in the real world, it’s clear that many of those steps towards a normal life have already been taken. In the towns and villages around where I live, shops are busy and café terraces are already full (albeit with restricted opening hours). Dutch grandparents are seeing their grandchildren again, and birthdays are once again being celebrated with the horrendous traditional “circle parties” at which people make awkward conversation while drinking bad coffee and eating disappointing cake. After a winter in semi-hibernation, the country is coming alive again.
This is in many ways all quite lovely, and from a public policy perspective understandable. As Rutte has repeatedly pointed out, although infections remain high here, they have remained fairly stable, despite the lifting of some restrictions. The government’s testing data has been plagued by delays and inaccuracies lately, but appears to show infections fluctuating around 7-8,000 per day for about the last six weeks, and declining a little in the last week or so. Hospital admissions and deaths have also held quite steady, while the R0 “reproductiegetal” has hovered around 1 for a couple of months now. Most importantly, many of the most vulnerable people have been vaccinated. As I’ve documented elsewhere, the Dutch vaccination programme had an appalling start, and has moved slowly and erratically thereafter, undoubtedly costing many lives. But even the harshest critic now has to admit things have improved rapidly in recent weeks, and even if we’re not exactly sprinting, we are now moving forward at a decent clip, with (according to the government) around 900,000 vaccinations scheduled this week. Official data shows a total of nearly seven million shots have now been administered – a lot for a country with only seventeen million people. On 6th January, 174 people in this country died of coronavirus; on 6th May it was 24.
In this context, for the country to accept a few extra deaths in exchange for millions of people gaining freedom could be a fair (if ethically tricky) trade. However, there are also serious reasons for concern. The WHO recommends countries should only consider lifting lockdowns if fewer than five percent of coronavirus tests are coming back positive; in the Netherlands the figure is currently eleven percent, and hasn’t been below seven percent since September. Like a Hollywood starlet with a Botox addiction, the Dutch pandemic also seems to be getting younger, with intensive admissions among younger age groups rising fast. And Dutch hospitals are also very strained. At the time of writing, around fifty people are being admitted to intensive care every day – the highest level for thirteen months. “We currently have the highest number of contagious people ever. Hospitals are overcrowded, are withdrawing [from routine healthcare] en masse, and have to postpone heart and cancer operations, to the limits of acceptability” medical association head Ernst Kuipers said last week. Watching Rutte’s latest press conference, I found myself thinking not about the data, but about people like the thirty-year-old ICU nurse who I’d seen profiled in the NRC newspaper recently, who drives 55 kilometers to work every day, and who after a night shift sometimes sleeps in the hospital for two hours before driving home to see her baby son. “We currently have thirteen Covid beds in the ICU”, she told the newspaper, “and yesterday the fourteenth patient was admitted anyway. One of them then went by helicopter to another hospital, and two more were added this morning.” Ministers naturally argue that the system can cope, but it feels as if we’re accelerating along a tightrope while the crosswinds are increasing.
The government seems keen to present the relative stable infections data as an achievement: if things are not getting worse, then they must be under control, right? But the truth is that infections are still very high: in October, everyone was horrified when Mark Rutte said daily infections might eventually pass five thousand a day, but we’re now consistently sitting over six thousand. At the time of writing, the Netherlands has roughly as many daily confirmed coronavirus cases as the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and Norway combined. Ministers have taken to describing the current situation as a “plateau”, but the graphs only really look that way to someone who lives in a country with no hills. And although the vaccination programme has got far better – and now arguably sits at about the European average – it remains patchy and often feels disorganised. About thirty per cent of Dutch people have now received some form of vaccine, compared with well over half of all Brits. At the very least, it’s fair to say the Netherlands is attempting something like a UK-style reopening of the economy without having the UK’s level of vaccinations, which is…. bold. And after a year of ambitious promises unfilled, it’s hard to take the government’s pledges seriously. Watching the proud peacocking of health minister Hugo de Jonge, I’m often reminded of Del Boy, the lovable British sitcom star famous for his hapless inability to get anything right, who’s always knee-deep in catastrophe but perpetually telling everyone they shouldn’t worry, because “this time next year, we’ll be millionaires!”
More broadly, the government’s messaging remains baffling, and often seems designed to nudge people towards behaving badly, rather than the opposite. Hand washing is promoted obsessively, and there seems to be some special Dutch variant of the virus which is completely non-contagious if people make a vague effort to sit about a metre apart. Last time infections were this high, the public seemed cautious and afraid, but now the atmosphere is far more carefree. An office building I visit occasionally is now packed with people having meetings and chatting over coffee, mostly maskless, and mostly uninterested in even pretending to keep their distance. Government surveys show only about half of people stay home or get tested if they have coronavirus symptoms. “I’ve got a cough and a runny nose, but I’ll be fine, it’s all just genetics!” one cyclist bellowed last week as he cycled with a friend past my front door. Such behavior is largely the fault of individuals, of course, but does, I think, point to systemic problems with way Dutch society treats the infection risk, which are in turn rooted in the government’s actions. I’ve never been fan of sweeping critiques of Evil Capitalist Neoliberalism, but Rutte’s current approach does feel a bit like the logical endpoint of centrist neoliberalism: cut back state intervention to a minimum and “trust the people” to look after themselves, and then express outrage when things go wrong; like parents who leave the front door wide open and get angry with their kids for wandering away.
This laissez-faire approach finds its ultimate expression in the notorious “experiments” run by FieldLab and other organizations, in which major events (football matches, running races, music concerts, museum tours, theme parks) are opened to thousands of people, at ten-figure expense, with no distancing or masks allowed, purely to see whether infections spread. After protests some events were abruptly cancelled, but dozens went ahead, with tens of thousands of participants. In March, for instance, five thousand people attended a football match together on the same day that the country soared back past nine thousand infections. In theory some experiments might be a good idea, I suppose: it would, for instance, be helpful to know more about how dangerous concerts are for those who attend. But the problem is that there’s often little pretense of scientific protocols, and many events have about as much in common with a clinical trial as the Vondelpark does with the Andes. Someone on Twitter astutely pointed out that the whole FieldLab endeavor seemed like Japanese whaling: an unacceptable practice rebadged as “science” to try and make it more palatable. To me, it looks more like the kind of stunt a teenage delinquent would pull; throwing a lit firework into a petrol station “just to see what happens”.
On certain corners of the internet, it’s long been argued that the government has secretly been pursuing a policy of letting infections run wild until herd immunity is achieved. The government did make some early statements implying this was the goal, but to me the conspiracy theories have always seemed a bit far-fetched: as a general rule in life, cock-up is more likely than conspiracy. Now, though, the theories seem to have come partly true. For me and many others, the most striking part of this week’s press conference wasn’t when the lifting of lockdown was announced, but when Hugo de Jonge urged people planning holidays to “keep in mind that other countries may see the Netherlands as a high-risk country, because we still have so many infections here”. Together with other statements, this felt like a quietly remarkable tipping point: while other nations still battle to push infections towards zero, the Dutch now openly acknowledge that the situation here is worse than elsewhere, and adopt policies which they know will increase infections further. Vaccination of the elderly means this approach isn’t quite the same as the “build herd immunity” of old, but it is a version of it, involving (hopefully) low deaths but a very high level of illness in the “healthy” population. Diet herd immunity, if you will.
It always seemed likely we’d end up somewhere around this point at around this time, with the elderly well-protected, everything reopening, infections spreading and many individuals being put in difficult and dangerous situations. That doesn’t make it less worrisome, though. In a European context, the level of infections and vaccinations in the Netherlands isn’t particularly unusual, but the combination of high infections plus lifting lockdown is. This week, Rutte said the country was “on our way to a hopefully beautiful summer thanks to the vaccinations”. This could be true, and I desperately hope it is – if only because I’m growing tired of writing grim little articles about dodgy Dutch Covid strategy, and would rather work on happier things. But the problem is that we’ve chosen to reopen at a time when there’s no room for error. Amid all the debate about curfews and distancing and opening times, it seems to me that only two questions really matter: will reopening mean infections stay at the same level? And if they don’t stay at the same level (or fall), can the health system cope? Unfortunately, the answer to both those questions is clearly “no”. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that lockdown is being lifted not because the epidemiological data justifies it, but simply because everyone’s sick of lockdown. What looks like a coherent strategy is defeatism in disguise. A Prime Minister recently re-elected on a platform of bland split-the-difference managerialism is taking an epic gamble. And a caretaker government supposedly barred from making any controversial opinions is defying global consensus about infection control, and raising the white flag.
As 2010 drew to a close, the international news remained focused on the fallout from the year’s big events: the start of the Arab Spring, the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Movie-goers were excited by recent smash hits the The King’s Speech and The Social Network, and music charts were dominated by young whippersnappers like Usher, Nelly and Eminem. In politics, meanwhile, David Cameron was just starting out on a happy coalition with Nick Clegg in the UK, Nicholas Sarkozy still had bold plans to transform France, and a youthful Barack Obama was in the appetizer days of his presidency. And in the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, a former mid-level manager at a peanut butter company, had recently become Prime Minister.
More than a decade later, a great deal has changed. Political careers have crumbled, revolutions have faltered, and the global economy has recovered from one once-in-a-generation crisis just in time to have another. Sarkozy has been convicted of corruption, Cameron is mooching in a shepherd’s caravan, and Obama vies with Prince Harry for the most lucrative deal with Netflix. Mark Rutte, however, is not only still in power, but likely to stay there. Polls suggest that when the Netherlands goes to the polls on 15th-17thMarch, Rutte’s VVD party will win not just the most seats in parliament, but more than twice as many seats as any other party. An upset is always possible, but it looks likely that after more than a decade in power, and following a recent economic crisis, deadly pandemic, riots and much else, the new boss will end up looking exactly the same as the old boss. As I once wrote elsewhere: Rutte is the Japanese knotweed of Dutch politics: impossible to get rid of.
Rutte’s ongoing success is in some ways a mystery. Whatever one thinks of his politics, he’s no great visionary. In speeches and press conferences he’s a good communicator, but there’s no soaring rhetoric: the general tone is less ‘Yes We Can’ and more ‘I Suppose We Might’. Despite his long tenure, Rutte’s record in office has also been, at best, blandly competent rather than glory-filled or transformative. Some things have arguably got better on his watch and other things worse; in a decade of wandering around the Netherlands talking to people, I’ve met plenty who respect him but almost no-one who was really a passionate fan. And perhaps most importantly, the government’s performance during recent crises has been patchy at best. Deaths during the coronavirus pandemic have been lower in the Netherlands than in some comparable countries but higher than in some others, lockdown policy has often seemed confused, and the national vaccination programme has moved about as fast as an ice skater stuck in a grassy cow field. In January, Rutte and his cabinet even suffered the indignity of having to resign en masse; brought down by a scandal involving gross mismanagement of the benefits system. For a man whose political sales pitch hasalways essentially been: “I’m nothing special but I’ll avoid drama and you’ll hardly notice I’m here”, the sense of rolling crisis has been damaging.
In other ways, though, it’s not hard to see why Rutte remains popular. Firstly, there’s the simple fact that for many Dutch people, life during the pandemic has not actually been that bad at all. Yes, deaths have been high, livelihoods have been lost and many people have suffered badly. But the Dutch have also enjoyed a degree of freedom which would be unheard of elsewhere. Last summer, Parisians faced fines if they left their homes without proper paperwork and children in Spain were barred from leaving their homes, but in most Dutch towns life remained quite normal, with non-essential shops open and few restrictions on personal activity. Even now, under a “strict” lockdown, people are still allowed visitors at home and are free to travel around the country; schools are open and you can visit non-essential shops if you make an appointment. When I visited Delft briefly last week, the streets were packed, with long lines at the ice cream shop, groups of people meeting up for coffee and perhaps one in a hundred pedestrians wearing a mask in the street. Bars and restaurants were closed, but otherwise an alien who landed from Mars would never guess anything had changed since 2019. If one accepts James Carville’s maxim that the only thing which matters is the economy (stupid), then it’s also not hard to see why Rutte has remained popular. The Netherlands’ economy has, like everyone else’s, taken a battering over the last year, but European Commission statistics show that in January unemployment was one of the lowest in Europe, with Dutch people less than half as likely to be out of work as French people. Many businesses are struggling now, but most voters are (in purely economic terms) better off than they were in 2010, and there’s a sense that after ten years with Rutte in charge, we could do a lot worse than another ten years of the same. The election campaign itself has felt strangely muted, with live events cancelled and most campaigning happening online. Trivial issues like chat show roastings have been discussed in soul-destroying detail, while some critically important ones are mentioned only in passing. For an observer this makes the whole process oddly boring and bloodless – but also benefits a politician who aims to preserve the current order rather than upend it.
More broadly, Rutte’s popularity also reflects the prevailing Dutch preference for a certain type of leader. Despite all the free-loving weed-smoking international stereotypes, this is at heart quite a conservative country, in both senses of the word: there have been only five Prime Ministers in the last forty-four years (all middle-aged white men); and by my rough count, right-leaning parties together look set to win about two thirds of the vote this time. For many Dutch, the only thing worse than a crisis is change, and Rutte feels like the living embodiment of the status quo: a warrior monk -type figure with no obvious hinterland. He’s unmarried and famously lives alone in a modest apartment, driving a second-hand car, teaching part-time, cleaning up his own spilled coffee and riding a bike between important meetings, half-eaten apple always in hand. When his mother died last year, Rutte didn’t visit her as to do so would have breached lockdown rules; something it’s hard to imagine some other statesmen doing. Inan age of massive motorcades and enormous security details, such ordinary behaviour is enough to make a leader go viral – but also perfectly pitched for a country where humility is prized, and a serious insult is “doe gewoon normaal” (just be normal). When I bumped into Rutte a couple of years ago at a scruffy little Rotterdam café, he arrived alone on foot, without any security, waited for a table and then ate some apple pie with a friend, who mostly seemed to ignore Rutte while fiddling with his phone. When my dog tried to steal a bite of his pie, the Prime Minister didn’t seem to mind.
All this isn’t to say that Rutte is uncontroversial. Many people are alarmed by the turn the Netherlands has taken in the last decade; feeling that (as in the UK) years of austerity have steadily eroded the quality of public services. While the quality of Dutch public services remains remarkably good overall, there are growing problems in some areas. Homelessness is rising and housing in some big cities is becoming ruinously expensive. The recent benefits scandal (Toeslagenaffaire) was a truly ugly business, involving racial profiling of benefits claimants, false accusations of fraud, families forced into bankruptcy and years of obfuscation and buck-passing by those in power, including the Prime Minister. More generally, Rutte has also had a bad habit of telling right-leaning voters whatever they want to hear, in the hope that they won’t desert him in favour of more extreme parties. This modern, liberal, media-friendly leader has openly told peoplewho didn’t abide by traditional “Dutch values” to go back where they came from, banned Muslim headscarves on public transport and cheerfully agreed with a member of the public who shouted out that he shouldn’t give any money to Italians or Spaniards. The mythical current immigration ‘crisis’ often seems to get priority over the real coronavirus one. Just this week, Rutte was telling reporters that if refugee numbers surged in Europe again, his response would be “grenzen dicht” (borders closed) – something which he consistently argued was impossible when the pandemic was spreading. Such comments have horrified the liberal Twittersphere, and there’s a strong case to be made that by “talking tough” on issues like Europe, Islam and immigration, Rutte has helped fan the flames of intolerance, emboldening the same far-right parties which he hopes to defeat. However, there’s also little doubt that such behaviour is popular with a huge number of Dutch voters. The Prime Minister’s ability to dodge a scandal remains impressive. Teflon Mark could fall into a dairy cesspit and still come out looking clean.
To international observers, perhaps the most notable thing about Rutte is the aforementioned lack of vision. In Anglo-Saxon world in particular, we’ve become somewhat accustomed to the idea that our leaders should be bombastic or at least impassioned, giving stirring speeches and pledging to deliver a brighter tomorrow. Dutch politics, however, doesn’t really work like that. While a British or American or French leader’s job is partly managerial and partly symbolic, in this country there’s little sense of the Prime Minister being a source of inspiration or moral authority. In a system with dozens of different parties in parliament, and three or four governing together in coalition, the job of Prime Minister is more like that of a marriage counsellor: coaxing unhappy partners to stick together a little longer rather than trying something new. The emphasis is not on grand visions or radical change, but on the dull business of keeping everyone not-too-unhappy. In that context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a former HR manager like Rutte would do well; not just tolerating the dull grind of inter-party management but seeming to thrive on it. After joining the VVD as a teenager, Rutte rose steadily through the party ranks and has proved a consummate pragmatist, apparently happy to adopt or ditch principles depending on what’s in fashion. Early in his tenure he partnered with the far-right firebrand Geert Wilders; now with leftish-liberals D66. Until the pandemic, this shape-switching was arguably quite successful, and helped the Netherlands remain on an even keel through crises including the MH17 disaster, the aftermath of the financial crisis, Brexit and Trump. While there’s certainly much to criticise about Rutte’s tenure, it’s still hard to find anyone who speaks ill of him personally, rather than of his policies, and there’s never been a hint of personal scandal. On the international stage, the natural comparison is with Angela Merkel: another centrist-conservative north European leader who’s been around longer thanTwitter. To me, however, Rutte also seems like a kind of Dutch Joe Biden: a cheerful dealmaker whose greatest strength is his ability to appear like a decent guy while herding cats in the same direction – yet who has no transformative agenda beyond keeping us in 2012 forever. Rutte is the kind of guy you’d be happy for your sister to marry, but also forget ten minutes after meeting at a conference.
During the current election campaign, Rutte has alsobenefited from the woes of his rivals. On the left, D66 (the Dutch version of the Liberal Democrats) have had a good few weeks, campaigning feistily on liberal issues and effectively distancing themselves from their own record in power. They may well deliver a modest surprise next week, awarding Sigrid Kaag the role of kingmaker. Others (GroenLinks, PvdD) have struggled to gain attention at a time when most people are focused on issues which lie somewhat outside those parties’ comfort zones. GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver seems manifestly decent but is no longer the new kid on the block, didn’t break through in televised debate, and his talk of climate crisis feels less urgent when people are worrying how to teach their kids while also chairing that 9am Zoom meeting. The centre-left PvdA (Labour Party), meanwhile, has run a solid campaign but was battered by the benefits scandal and still hasn’t recovered from the trauma of served in coalition with Rutte during his last term, dismaying many of their leftist supporters. On the right, Rutte’s current coalition allies the CDA have gained a bit of zip under new leader Wopke Hoekstra, and will likely do quite well. But Hoekstra has also made some mis-steps campaigning, and (like Rutte) has often clumsily pandered to the far right on immigration and Europe. Like other coalition partners, the CDA struggles a bit to claim credit for the government’s recent successes while distancing themselves from recent crises, and to appeal to new voters while satisfying their conservative base. Compared to Rutte, Hoekstra looks cooler, younger and a good deal more dashing – but also not quite fully formed; someone who (like Jens Spahn or Keir Starmer) could be leading the country in five or ten years’ time but could also fall short of expectations. A Hoekstra premiership remains plausible, but his rising star could also turn into a shooting one.
In parts of press, the focus is inevitably on the populist right, and the two men who lead and exemplify the two most notable rightwing parties: Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet. During this election cycle, Wilders has received less frenzied media attention than in the past – after decades in national politics, he’s no longer news, and his angry-at-everything schtick has worn a bit thin. Most polls show support for Wilders’ PVV party falling a bit, and the party has lost seats in both the Dutch Senate and the European Parliament recently. The party has also provided a rather un-Dutch salacious scandal recently, with one of Wilders’ key parliamentary supporters accused of forcing his ex-wife to have sex with police bodyguards inside the Dutch parliament. Wilders has himself admitted that the current climate favours the incumbent rather than challengers like himself, saying “corona is the number one issue” and “in a time of crisis, people tend to rally around the flag”. But there’s also no doubt that when polling day comes, he’s still a force to be reckoned with. It’s surprising how much media coverage and punditry neglects to mention the fact that the PVV consistently comes second in the polls, behind only Rutte’s VVD, and has roughly doubled its vote share in the last year and a half. More entertainingly, there’s also Thierry Baudet, a sort of Millennial-friendly reboot of Wilders who crashed onto the political scene a couple of years ago, won huge attention with his ageing-Gap-model looks and slick, YouTube-friendly style of campaigning. Baudet often seems to get more attention than he deserves, but there’s again little doubt that he is (or at least was) an influential figure; niftily stealing votes from Wilders and winning shock first place at the provincial elections just two years ago. Since then, however, Baudet’s fortunes have been undermined by party infighting and scandals about alleged anti-Semitism. In the summer of 2019, the FvD was polling at about fifteen percent, but it’s now it’s barely a fifth of that level. During the campaign, Baudet has also taken an alarming swerve further to the right, holding lockdown-busting rallies, claiming the Nuremberg tribunals were illegitimate, alleging vast international conspiracies and opposing coronavirus vaccinations. This may all represent an unveiling of what Baudet really thinks, but it feels to me more like a strategic choice: desperate to retain his influence, Baudet looked around spotted a gap in the market for a party which is basically an angry pro-Trump Facebook page brought to life. It’s easy to mock, but his analysis doesn’t seem wrong: amazingly, the FvD’s projected vote share has risen sharply since Baudet went full moron. Overall, though, it’s clear that both Baudet and Wilders have painted themselves into a corner. Their parties are certain to win a decent number of votes, but also almost certain to be locked out of government, given the unwillingness of other major parties to enter coalition with them.
After the upsets of Brexit and Trump, it would be foolish to put too much faith in pre-election polls. But at this point, Rutte’s lead is so big that it’s almost guaranteed he’ll fall a little short of his previous peak yet still crush all rivals. Coalition negotiations will take at least three months, and could well deliver atweak to the shape of government, with a smaller party like the CU perhaps dropping out and another stepping in as a substitute. There’s also still anoutside chance that smaller parties could do well enough that they can make their participation in government conditional on a change at the top, and force Rutte out. (In the Hague, people talk of the possibility that Rutte could serve another couple of years, then step aside without completing a full term, perhaps to take a top job in Brussels). It’s also possible that the pandemic could affect the result in unexpected ways – for example, encouraging older voters to stay home, and hence boosting prospects ofparties which draw support from the sections of society who use TikTok rather than Yahoo Mail. Newer, smaller parties like alt-right JA21 and “D21” pro-Europeans Volt will likely grab a few seats. Judging by his recent tweets and speeches, there’s also a real possibility Baudet will reject any election result he doesn’t like – an eventuality which I’m not sure Dutch society is well prepared for. Yet after the most turbulent and traumatic year in postwar history, the most likely election outcome remains the most boring one: more of the same. Overall, Dutch voters look like customers in a local takeaway restaurant: spending ages browsing a long menu of choices, before ending up ordering that favourite old dish they choose every time anyway. It’s another odd irony: an election contested by dozens of parties may deliver an utterly bland outcome; and the soon-to-be longest-serving Prime Minister in Dutch history could be someone who leaves almost no visible legacy. What would another decade of Rutte meanfor the country? No one seems to know, including the man himself. But we may be about to find out.
Lockdowns, vaccines and how the Dutch forgot how to organize anything
About three years ago, a new railway bridge was built not far from where I live, across the Amsterdam-Rhine canal outside Utrecht. The new structure wasn’t much to look at: a massive metal curve like a toppled archer’s bow, coloured the same dull grey as a Dutch winter sky. What made it remarkable, though, was the speed with which it was installed. Rather than being pieced together over several weeks or months, the whole structure was driven in by road in one massive piece, measuring nearly twice as long as a football pitch and weighing more than three thousand tons. Sliding along the top of a dike, it passed a row of apartment blocks which looked like tiny toys in comparison, navigated a tricky corner hanging out over thin air, and then slid out over the water. When I passed by on Friday morning there’d been no bridge to be seen, but by Sunday night the job was finished, and trains were already running on the surrounding tracks on Monday. Another week, another Dutch infrastructure marvel.
I’ve found myself thinking of that bridge a few times this week, in the context of the rollout of coronavirus vaccines. In many ways a vaccine is quite different from a railway bridge, of course: small vials of delicate, temperature-sensitive wizardry can’t be plonked in place by a crane at midnight. Yet delivering a vaccine seems (like bridge-building) something the Dutch state should be superb at: a complex technological undertaking, dependent on good planning and bureaucratic efficiency. However, unlike that railway bridge, the Dutch authorities have bungled the vaccine rollout horribly. In the UK, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved by regulators on 2nd December, and the first member of the public received the jab on 8th December. Within three weeks, roughly a million Brits had received the first dose of the vaccine. Across the Channel, things moved a little slower, and regulatory approval didn’t arrive in the EU until 21st December, but things moved quickly after that: within six days, vaccines had been delivered to all 27 member states and several countries had begun administering jabs immediately. As of early January, about 265,000 Germans had received the vaccine, as well as thousands of Spaniards and Finns, Poles and Slovakians, Danes and Portuguese. The arrival of vaccines was, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, a “moment of unity”, in which Europe would “start turning the page on a difficult year”. Unfortunately, however, the Dutch didn’t seem to receive the memo. At the time of writing (January 4th) not a single Netherlands resident has received a coronavirus vaccine outside of a clinical trial. Vaccination was planned to start only on a small scale on 8th January, in a small handful of locations, and on a significant scale perhaps ten days after that. With public anger rising, the government is now moving to accelerate things by a few days, and some medical staff may get vaccines in the next day or two. But still, by the time the first Dutch jabs are given, a month will have passed since Brits began getting their vaccines, and about two weeks since the first Germans did. The Dutch government now says healthypeople under the age of sixty probably won’t be able to get their vaccinations until the summer. They didn’t specify which year.
What, then, has gone wrong here? How has a country considered a world leader in managing massive projects somehow become terrible at delivering massive projects just when it matters most? Although some of the details are complex, the roots of the problem are quite simple: the government based their plans partly on the current scheme for delivering flu vaccines, and assumed the AstraZeneca vaccine would be rolled out first and were taken by surprise when the Pfizer one (which needs better cooling systems) was approved earlier. They were late in starting preparations for nationwide vaccine delivery, and appear to have moved quite slowly thereafter. To their credit, the authorities did recognize the transformative potential of a Covid vaccine early on – on 6th May, when no-one expected a vaccine to be available for another year or more, Dutch health minister Hugo de Jonge was already promising that “we will do everything we can to get vaccinated as soon as possible”. Yet inexplicably, when it came to following up on that commitment, the government seem to have taken preparations for vaccine delivery far less seriously than the average teenager takes planning for a Friday night out. It was only in November (when the pandemic had been raging for nine months, and several vaccines were close to being ready for public use) that the Dutch authorities began making serious efforts to organize vaccination, and decided to use dedicated vaccination centres rather than ordinary doctors’ surgeries to deliver the jabs, meaning there was an impossibly short timeframe for actually setting those centres up. “If we’d gone for large-scale vaccinations from the beginning, we could have started two weeks earlier”, one health official told the Volkskrant. Having started late, officials also became bogged down in things like the scripts which call centre staff would use. Fretting over the details, the government let big issues go ignored,like a bride who is so busy fussing about table decorations that she fails to notice her fiancé has set fire to the chapel and run away with one of the bridesmaids. In Germany, the government was already giving journalists tours of new mass vaccination centres in Berlin on 3rd December. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, nearly two weeks after that, on 16th December, the national broadcaster NOS was still reporting authorities had merely “started with investigations for where the vaccination locations will be”. Criticized on 2nd January for being slow to respond to criticism of the Dutch schedule, Hugo de Jonge uttered in his defence the immortal words: “I’ve been thinking about this since December 24”.
Predictably, there are some here who argue that the dispute over timing is overblown. Mass vaccination is a marathon rather than a sprint, they say, and it doesn’t much matter who starts vaccinating when, as long as we get it right in the end. Remarkably, the government has even gone as far as implying that other countries have been reckless in their haste to deliver. “It’s not responsible to do it earlier”, de Jonge said last week. “Then you’re just choosing a symbolic start and that’s not sensible”. “It’s not a competition to see who started first in Europe”, one of the national vaccination programme managers agreed. In some ways this pushback seems fair: vaccination campaigns will probably go on for years, and starting early doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing things right. France, for example, launched its vaccination campaign with fanfare yet has since been heavily criticized as the number of people actually getting shots has remained very low. In Britain, numbers are much higher, but some have expressed concerns about corners being cut, with vaccine regimens being mixed and hospitals not keeping good computerized records of who’s received them. Several other countries, such as Italy, have also apparently been forced to keep many vaccine doses in storage, without the capacity to use them immediately. However, it’s also clear that the delays seen in the Netherlands do constitute a real problem. Saying “France has delays too!” or “it’s not a competition!” does nothing to change the basic fact that people here are not receiving lifesaving vaccines simply because the government isn’t capable of delivering them yet. It’s also worth noting that the numbers involved here are not small: the US has now vaccinated over two million people and the UK over a million. If those programs are merely ‘symbolic’ then the symbols are pretty big ones. More importantly, the new variant of the virus now circulating looks like a game-changer. Dutch hospitals are already badly strained, with elective surgeries cancelled and ICU occupancy at its highest level since April, and rising. In the six months between March and September 2020 around 13,000 people were admitted to Dutch hospitals with coronavirus; in the three months since then it’s already almost 19,000. If a new variant which is significantly more infectious begins to spread here as quickly as it appears to be in Britain, the only route forward will be mass vaccination as quickly as possible. And most importantly of all, for the thousands of people living at heightened risk of infection and death, those “few extra weeks” make an enormous difference. If you’re inclined to give the government a get-out-of-jail-free card here, perhaps just pause for a moment and imagine you’re a nurse working on an ICU in the Hague, unable to obtain a vaccine while your sister who works as a nurse in Berlin or Boston or Manchester received one days ago. Or worse still, imagine living in a place like Arnhem, in the eastern Netherlands, and watching your husband, wife, mother or brother dying via Zoom, and knowing that if they lived twenty kilometers to the southeast, in Germany, they would have received a vaccine to save them weeks ago. As a former director of microbiology for the national health agency RIVM said last week, the fact that the Netherlands will be one of the last countries in Europe to protect its people is “astounding [and] embarrassing… Of course this will cost lives. Every week counts.”
The vaccine delays also matter because the Netherlands is not starting from a position of having the pandemic under control. On the positive side, several weeks into a stricter lockdown the number of new infections finally appears to be falling: the number of daily infections is now more than a fifth lower than it was before Christmas. The graph of Dutch infections over time now looks essentially camel-shaped: a big spike in October, a nice dip in November, and then another big spike in December, with the beginnings of another decent decline now. However, we’re still seeing an average of about eight thousand people testing positive every day, compared with ‘only’ about five thousand at the start of December. (Yesterday’s figure was below seven thousand for the first time in a month, although daily data should be taken with a pinch of salt.) As several experts have pointed out, this means there’s little room for error. On a per capita basis, the Netherlands still has roughly twice as many daily infections as France and Germany; and in absolute terms more than twice as many infections as Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Finland combined. (All data is somewhat unreliable and comparisons are tricky, but they do indicate the scale of the problem.) Many Dutch people have long made a sport of poking fun at their neighbours in Belgium, with their silly accents and dysfunctional politics and badly potholed roads, but this week Dutch infections were (relative to the population, and according to Our World In Data) running at about four times the level of their southern neighbours. It’s another terrible irony: a country famed for its ability to keep floodwaters out has proved itself incapable of preventing a second wave.
Unfortunately, it’s also hard to believe the government’s pledges that swift efficiency is just around the corner. In the early days of the pandemic, the Netherlands’ response looked for a while admirably level-headed, but in retrospect it seems some serious strategic errors were baked in early on. A right-leaning government, proud of its pro-business credentials and nervous about losing votes to populist parties in the upcoming elections, quickly decided that the pandemic would be impossible to stop, and opted for a laissez-faire approach which sought to limit damage to the economy, abide by libertarian principles, and protect the vulnerable while quietly accepting that significant deaths were inevitable. The government’s reflex appears to have always been: do less rather than more, offer people advice rather than setting rules, and trust the public to make their own choices about how to behave. This all sounded quite nice in March, but proved woefully inadequate once people started behaving worse in the summer, and looked quite mad once infections started spiraling in the autumn. While there’s a legitimate ethical debate about some policies, the government sadly wasted weeks on laughable measures – claiming, for example, that rapidly rising infections could be curbed simply by closing bars an hour earlier. Bizarrely, a country which frets constantly about once-in-a-millennium flood risks has abandoned the precautionary principle. The refusal to encourage mask use was a totemic example: for months, anyone wearing a mask in a crowded place was liable to be treated as if they were wearing a red clown’s nose. Even in hospitals, it was for much of last year more common to see people without masks than with them. Astonishingly, in January 2021, not far off a year after the pandemic began, the main website of the RIVM public health agency still makes a point of emphasizing that “Non-medical masks are likely to be of limited help in preventing contamination of others… [and] it is not possible to say with certainty whether or not non-medical masks have added value [in preventing infection]”. At my local hospital, there’s still no separate entrance for coronavirus patients, and ordinary patients or visitors might easily find themselves sharing an elevator with an infectious person on a trolley. On the other side of town, my local shopping mall has installed one-way walking routes, removed some displays to create extra space and stationed staff at the entrances to clean trolleys and check shops don’t get overcrowded. This all looks sensible, but the mind boggles as to why it took until late December 2020 for these measures to be introduced, when any fool with a Twitter account or a newspaper subscription could see such things were necessary months ago. According to the latest government surveys, only 45% of Dutch people say they’d get tested if they had corona symptoms, 44% would stay at home if they were ill, and only 33% say they regularly wash their hands. In my own circle of acquaintances, foreign trips remain quite common, and distancing rules are often breezily ignored. These failures are largely the individuals’ own fault, of course, but they do also demonstrate a failure of government. If more than a third of people openly admit to ignoring distancing rules, it seems likely that those rules have been poorly explained and enforced. Public messaging has generally beenwoeful: around where I live, there are endless signs reminding drivers to upgrade their winter tires and switch their headlines on when it’s dark, yet I almost never see any public safety information advising me to stay home or wear a mask. Throughout the pandemic, the government has also made a series of unforced errors and set terrible examples: Mark Rutte failing to wear a mask when most other EU leaders made a point of doing so; Ferd Grapperhaus holding a wedding in breach of distancing rules and then cutting the penalties people pay for doing such things; the Royal family jetting off to Greece when everyone else was locked down; Jaap van Dissel claiming the pandemic was spread largely due to the poor education level of care home workers while apparently forgetting that he’d literally been appearing on national television telling people not to bother wearing masks. Individually these incidents are highly irritating, but collectively they’ve helped build a toxic sense of complacency; and a perception that the rules aren’t really important, and its fine to bend them as long as you generally stand a bit further apart from your friends. “Where’s your mask?” I overhead a security guard at a supermarket asking a young male customer at the door last week. “I had one of those blue ones but I lost it somewhere”, the customer said. To which the security guard replied: “Ok, well you can go in as long as you remember to bring one next time”. When I visited one hospital this morning, the catering and reception staff weren’t wearing masks. The beloved Dutch trait of “nuchterheid” (sobriety, or a refusal to panic) looks increasingly like a fatal condition.
When thinking about all this, it’s often easy to exaggerate the effects of political leadership and national culture while underestimating the power of other factors which no-one can do much about, such as population density or physical geography. However, it’s also clear that the pandemic has highlighted some serious weaknesses in the Dutch political system. The Netherlands is famously run with an unusual emphasis on consensus-building, expert consultation and respectful negotiation. Governments are always coalitions, and major policies carefully hammered out by parties, unions, businesses and experts discussing them at great length. On the face of it, this is a wonderful thing – after all, many of us have spent recent years wishing other parts of the world also had leaders who were a little less confrontational and little more guided by scientific evidence. Yet in recent months it’s become clear that a system which is excellent at delivering heavyweight systemic change over the longer term (healthcare reform, flood defences) really struggles when there’s an urgent need to do unpopular things, such as mandating lockdowns or compelling mask use. Giving everyone a say takes time, and for all its apparent efficiency, the Dutch state often changes direction about as quickly as an oil tanker turning through stodgy erwtensoep (pea soup).
In recent months, policy changes have followed a familiar cycle: after months of political debate and chat-show discussion, “bold” new policies are briefed out to the press on Sunday evening or Monday morning, announced by the government on Monday evening, and then hastily clarified, amended or reversed on Wednesday or Thursday once it becomes clear that the legal or societal implications haven’t been properly thought through. Delays with vaccine rollout are not the exception but the rule: the coronavirus tracing app, for example, was announced in April but not delivered until October, and doesn’t appear to have had much effect since then. The current lockdown is comprehensive and was badly needed, but unfortunately was launched when infections were already very high and weeks of further growth were already baked in. Reading the news lately, I often find myself inadvertently chuckling when I see what’s been announced: children with symptoms of infection can be tested as of 31st December; negative tests are required for incoming air travelers as of 29th December; sun-seeking package holidays are discouraged as of 17th December; shops are encouraged to reduce crowding indoors on 10thDecember; masks are made compulsory in enclosed public spaces from 1st December – all decent, sensible policies to which the natural reaction is “What? You mean we weren’t doing that already?” The Dutch state these days seems like that uncle who always sends you a happy birthday message several few weeks too late: well-intentioned, but so late that you wonder why they bothered at all. “If you need a big dam built over the next few decades then the Dutch will do that perfectly”, one friend said to me recently, “but if you need something fixing right now then bad luck – we’ll need to appoint a commission to discuss it for a couple of years first”.
Watching it all unfold, it also often strikes me that despite Dutch people’s reputation for directness and straight-talking, the political culture is surprisingly forgiving of failure here. Criticism of the government has been growing recently, but the overall sense is often of a climate where bad mistakes are greeted with a shrug, and everyone argues in parliament but then meets for a coffee afterwards. Some journalists do an excellent job, yet the media too often uses prime ministerial press conferences to ask about holiday options rather than to hold the powerful to account. The coalition system means many of Mark Rutte’s fiercest rivals are not outside government but inside his own cabinet, and lines of accountability are frayed. If vaccine delivery gets botched, which of the four parties in government should be blamed? This week leading members of both the CDA and VVD parties were seen criticizing the government’s vaccine mistakes, apparently forgetting that their parties currently hold the health ministry and prime ministership respectively. In a power-sharing system, there’s always someone else to take the blame. Oddly, failure often gets dressed up as success: if (for example) a British Prime Minister announced a new lockdown policy and then scrapped it a few days later after being criticized by his rivals, that would be mocked as a hapless “U-turn”, but here it’s merely “listening to parliament”. And Dutch exceptionalism remains a powerful drug: if bad things only happen in countries (like Spain and Greece and Italy) which are badly run, then when bad things happen here it means they must have been unavoidable. If we succeed it’s because of our unusually savvy approach, and if we fail it’s because God wanted it that way.
When writing pieces like this one, I try always to remember that the Netherlands isn’t unique in struggling to control the pandemic, that running a country is hard, and that many decent people in government are doing their best while grappling with impossible choices. Looking at the number of Dutch infections, the situation does (for now) look better than a few weeks ago. If one judges performance purely by the metric of “protecting the economy while preventing hospitals from collapsing” then the Dutch government has arguably been fairly successful so far. However, “our hospitals didn’t completely collapse yet” feels like a pretty low bar. This is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita higher than Germany’s, and a healthcare system which is regularly judged to be the best in Europe. More importantly, this is a nation which prides itself on its ability to get things done, and on its ability to avert natural disasters, and work together in the best interests of the nation. Yet somehow, when it comes to the ultimate test – delivering a lifesaving vaccine – we’re relaxed about being the worst in Europe. I’m a citizen of two countries – the Netherlands and Britain – and if you’d asked me two months ago which one of those places would vaccinate a million people against Covid in 2020, I would have guessed wrong. In the month since the UK began vaccinating, roughly two thousand people have died of Covid-19 in the Netherlands, while vaccines which could have saved them are literally sitting in a fridge somewhere. If that isn’t a terrible failure of government, then I don’t know what is. If Suriname (for example) was in our position – following a boldly iconoclastic policy which went against the mainstream scientific advice for months, then experiencing some of the highest infections in the world, and vaccinating weeks or months later than everyone else – Dutch ministers would be pointing aghast, scoffing about failed states and wondering how they’d got in such a mess. And for someone like me, more used to blogging happily about the eccentricities and curiosities of European history, it’s increasingly hard not to feel let down. I am (believe it or not) an optimist at heart, and think that if lockdowns are managed properly and vaccines delivered well, some form of normalcy could return in the spring. But if the WHO announced tomorrow that wearing a blue baseball cap could reduce corona deaths by 95%, I don’t have much faith that the Dutch government would swiftly mandate their use and distribute caps nationwide. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they spent a couple of months telling people not to wear blue hats at all, before ordering millions of red ones by mistake.
A few weeks ago, before the current lockdown, I spent a day out in the southern provinces of Zeeland and Zuid Holland, visiting a few bits of the famous Delta Works: the network of massive dams, flood gates and sea defences which was built to protect the country after a terrible flood (the watersnoodramp) killed several thousand people in 1953. I’d seen the concrete causeways which I cycled over many times before, yet I still alwaysfind them impressive; not just for their scale but because of their symbolic power, and the way they’d once infuseda nation battered by war with a renewed sense of national courage and purpose, and a determination to pay any price in order to protect its citizens. Yet as I watched the sun set over the Haringvliet, I couldn’t shake a singledepressing thought: that the coronavirus pandemic has now killed more than seven times as many Dutch people as the 1953 flood, and that no-one’s capable of building a Delta Works against it. The pandemic is our generation’s watersnoodramp, and we’re failing to do enough to stop it.
About a year ago, I started writing another book. The premise was simple: as someone who was born in Britain but has lived in the Netherlands for years, and who now has dual nationality, I’ve long been fascinated by how well things work here. When I need an appointment at a Dutch hospital, I can get one almost immediately. When a pothole appears in the street near my house, it’s usually repaired overnight. When I catch a train it’s almost always on time and connects perfectly with waiting buses and ferries. Crime rates are low and incomes high. People work part-time, take long holidays and cycle everywhere; Dutch children are regularly reported to be the happiest in the world. The Netherlands seems, in short, an excellent example of how you should run a country. “Everything just works”, I remember one expat saying to me in amazement, not long after they arrived from Brexit-bashed Britain. “All the bloody time”.
Twelve months into my writing project, however, such arguments are becoming increasingly difficult to make. When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, the Netherlands stumbled a bit at first, incurring a heavy toll in lives, but eventually got things under control; implementing a laid-back ‘intelligent lockdown’ which (while never quite as effective as its architects claimed) did a reasonably good job of bringing infections and deaths under control while allowing some form of normal life to continue. In early April, at least one hundred and fifty Dutch people were dying from the virus every day, but as the country locked down, this fell to around five a week. New infections plateaued at close to zero. By June, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was announcing that the crisis was over and “a new normal” had arrived; handing out flowers to his staff and striking a celebratory tone which was, in retrospect, rather unwise. People were given the impression that the war was over, when in fact it was still only 1940.
Fast-forward a few months, and things are spinning badly out of control. As the lockdown was relaxed in the summer, infections inevitably crept upwards again, rising to a few hundred per week in early August. By the start of September, they’d reached about three and a half thousand cases a week. Two weeks later, they’d more than doubled to over eight thousand cases a week, and by this week had roughly tripled again, to over twenty thousand cases a week. The daily data looks even worse: this time last week, new infections were running at well under four thousand per day, but yesterday (Thursday) they reached nearly six thousand a day. Rotterdam now has more daily infections than Denmark. More than a thousand people are in hospital because of the virus, with about a quarter of these in intensive care. Deaths are running at around a hundred a week. According to figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Netherlands has had, in the last fourteen days, roughly the same number of new Covid-19 infections as Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden combined.
The emergence of a second wave isn’t unique to the Netherlands, of course – many countries are now seeing infections rise again, and some of those once praised for their effective responses are struggling. But the Netherlands unfortunately seems like a particularly acute case: after spending months being appalled about the uncontrolled spread of the virus in places like Brazil and the US, the Dutch now find themselves in a worse situation. To some of us, this summer felt like the last days of Rome, with everyone drinking beer in the sun and going out for pizza while the Vandals and Goths gathered at the gates.
The problem isn’t just that infections have risen, it’s that the authorities’ response is increasingly muddled. In the last few weeks, I’ve tried five times to obtain an appointment for a coronavirus test (mostly for other people), and always found both the telephone booking system and the website over capacity. On three occasions I gave up trying; the other two times I eventually secured a testing slot about five days later and nearly an hour and a half’s drive away. The samples these people gave may well be sent to Dubai or Germany to be analysed, because the Netherlands itself has run out of processing capacity: proof, I suppose, that rumours the pandemic would kill off globalisation were greatly exaggerated. Contact-tracing systems, meanwhile, have periodically been suspended due to lack of capacity, while the corona-tracing app which the government announced with great flourish in April is only now being launched, six months and thousands of deaths later. And when it comes to protective masks, the Netherlands has, like the United States, managed the rare trick of ensuring their use has become heavily politicised, so that (broadly speaking) people of one political persuasion think wearing them is sensible, while those of the opposite persuasion think they’re something from Orwell’s 1984. Appallingly, the Dutch government has not just declined to enforce masks but actively discouraged their use, with Rutte being one of the few European leaders almost never photographed wearing one. Last week, the Prime Minister said on Monday that there was no point compelling people to wear masks, then on Wednesday (in the face of fierce parliamentary pressure) issued an “urgent recommendation” that people wear them in shops and other enclosed spaces. Then on Friday, his top science adviser, the head of the RIVM, was all over the news telling people that there was no point wearing a mask after all. Incredibly (according to Nieuwsuur) official advice to elderly care homes still doesn’t order the wearing of masks by staff, saying merely that mask use should be “considered”. Other restrictions are also poorly enforced. When the justice minister was famously caught celebrating his own wedding in clear violation of social distancing rules, he refused to resign and the government cut the fines which people who break the rules must pay. In Gouda, the town nearest to where I live, the Mayor has this week been in the news complaining that social distancing rules which limit church services to thirty people are intolerably burdensome and shouldn’t be enforced. Even with infections soaring, the government still insists the current distancing measures are probably enough, and has ruled out any further changes until next week. I used to often tweet satirically during the Prime Minister’s bi-weekly press conferences but largely gave up around the time when Rutte said, with all the gravity of a doctor announcing he’d found a cure for cancer, that the explosive rise in infections would be solved by asking bars to shut at 1am. In such situations, parody becomes indistinguishable from reality.
What, then, has gone wrong here? How did a nation known for its level-headedness and pragmatism end up in one of the worst positions in Europe? It is, inevitably, difficult to say. As with the first wave, the new outbreak is probably due partly to uncontrollable factors, including the fact that the Netherlands is a major international transport hub and is incredibly densely populated. However, it also seems to me that the near-unique badness of the current Dutch situation is also caused by a confluence of several other factors: a governing party which has a deep-seated attachment to abstract ideas of “freedom” from state control; a somewhat libertarian public which often resents being told what to do; governing institutions which have spent so many decades successfully grappling with existential threats that they’ve blithely let their guard down; a public which despite it’s independent-mindedness has an unusually high level of trust in government; a mistaken perception that the first wave wasn’t that bad so a second one wouldn’t matter; a coalition-based political system which helps co-opt and mute parliamentary opposition to whatever the government does; a news media which is sometimes too gentle when it comes to holding the powerful to account; a sizable minority which indulges reckless Microsoft-5G-made-coronavirus conspiracy theories; a prolonged dalliance with the idea of building ‘herd immunity’; a persistent tendency to blame small minorities such as partying students for rising infections while ignoring the behaviour of the majority; a mercantile worldview which puts profit and loss ahead of social concerns; a policymaking process which prioritises consensus-building and difference-splitting over decisive action; an enduring national sense of breezy superiority which means people assume bad things only happen in badly-run countries like Italy and Spain, where people lack the good sense to organise things properly…. It all adds up to a toxic brew, in which some of the things we assumed were national strengths start to look more like critical weaknesses. The Netherlands had pre-existing conditions.
It’s probably important to emphasize again here that the Dutch experience is not entirely unique: many countries have struggled to deliver a coherent response. It’s also always important not to conflate coronavirus infections with deaths – in wealthier countries, even people aged 75 who contract the virus have only about a one in twenty-five chance of dying from it. While the number of new coronavirus infections is rising rapidly in the Netherlands, the number of deaths remains relatively low (although is a lagging indicator, and already running at about a hundred a week). Lockdowns have serious side effects, and Rutte could turn out to be right that after a couple of weeks, earlier closing times in bars will miraculously bring infection levels down. There are also glimmers of hope: after months when people seemed in denial about the severity of the pandemic, more are starting to take it seriously. Anecdotally, we seem to have moved from a situation where most people didn’t know anyone who’d been directly affected by the virus to one where most people have a friend, colleague or relative who’s ill. Hopefully, this might mean behavior starts to change.
However, even the most ardent supporter of the current government would probably have to acknowledge four basic facts. Firstly, that the “lockdown” restrictions here have, since the pandemic began, been unusually light-touch, and haven’t hardened all that much in the last few weeks. Secondly, that the Netherlands is one of the few countries in Europe where masks remain rare, and where their use is actively discouraged by those in power. Thirdly, that there have been bad problems with testing, and that capacity to diagnose and trace infections remains patchy at best, and sometimes non-existent. And fourthly, that the number of new infections here is now rising at an alarming rate, with the Netherlands currently suffering (according to NRC, and relative to its size) more infections than the US, Brazil, Belgium, France, the UK or almost anywhere else in the wealthy world. Yesterday, for every two people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Germany, there were three testing positive in the Netherlands – despite the Netherlands being about one-fifth the size. Put simply: things are not going well here.
Personally, I still believe that this is, on balance, an unusually high-functioning society, and a wonderful place to live and work. I’m proud of my new citizenship. I also don’t take much delight in condemning the current government – I’ve always quite liked the cut of Mark Rutte’s jib, and politically am inclined to look favourably on a government which is fiscally conservative, pro-EU and socially liberal. There is, I think, still a small chance the country could turn things around, and surf this wave as well as we did the first one. But that window of opportunity to do that is shrinking fast. As the crisis accelerates, the authorities often look like one of the hares or hedgehogs which I see when driving on the country lanes around my house: frozen in the headlights, so bewildered by the approaching tragedy that they’re incapable of deciding which way to move. And for me, all this presents something of a challenge to some of my assumptions about Dutch society and culture. A country which I thought was unusually sensible suddenly looks rather reckless. A government which prides itself on its flexibility seems stuck in a rut, unwilling to change direction even as a cliff edge looms. A country where disaster prevention has long been a national religion now resolutely refuses to prevent a disaster. A nation which has an uncanny knack for generating triumphs out of adversity now appears determined to do the opposite. And people who always seemed unusually close-knit and communal turn out to be distressingly relaxed about the deaths of thousands of fellow citizens, as long as they can keep going out for coffee and apple tart. I’m still writing another book, but the project about the Netherlands being well-run is currently on hold.
Visiting a Dutch city during a deadly pandemic can be a bizarre experience. Cautiously travelling to a few different places for work this week, I found the shops busy and the streets bustling. Squares and canalside terraces were filled with people drinking beer in the sunshine. Museums were open, and in some places people were queuing to get inside tables at restaurants. Face masks were about as common as mountains. Walking through Amsterdam and the Hague, I found myself thinking that if a Dutch person now woke from a six-month coma and went out for a walk, they probably wouldn’t notice much different from an ordinary summer. Even the Dutch love of foreign travel doesn’t seem much diminished. “It was nice and sunny”, I heard one older woman tell a friend about the holiday she’d just had in Italy, “but there were just too many Dutch people everywhere”.
All this is surprising not just because of the state of the coronavirus pandemic worldwide – 20 million confirmed infections, 750,000 deaths, increasing evidence of airborne transmission – but because of the state of the pandemic in the Netherlands. A few months ago, the situation here was terrible: in early April, at least one hundred and fifty people were recorded as dying from the virus every day, with the true death toll certainly much higher. But then, despite a lockdown which was relatively light compared to those in places like Britain and France, the numbers began to fall. By late April, the daily death toll had fallen to more like fifty per day, and two months after that had hit nearly zero. On June 24th, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the “crisis atmosphere” was over and the country had entered “a new normal”. Now, though, the figures are going up again, sharply. In the last week, close to five thousand people have tested positive for the virus, including over six hundred people yesterday (12th August) alone. This was the fifth week in a row that infections have risen, and epidemiological graphs now look not mountain-shaped, but N-shaped. The Netherlands has had roughly as many coronavirus cases in the last fortnight as Greece has had since the pandemic began.
This turnaround in fortunes isn’t unique to the Netherlands, course. With lockdowns being eased across Europe, many other countries have followed similar ski-jump pattern of rapid decline followed by renewed steady rise. Even some countries which were recently being lauded for their COVID-fighting performance (such as Germany) are now battling to contain localized outbreaks, while others (such as Australia) are already experiencing second waves which appear worse than the first. What is more unique, however, is how the Dutch government has responded. Last Thursday, as newspapers began filling with worrisome stories about spiking infections, and parts of England were going back under lockdown, Mark Rutte and health minister Hugo de Jonge gave a press conference at which many expected them to announce new restrictions in at least some parts of the country. However, their response amounted to little more than a stern lecture telling young people not to get sick and then visit their grandparents, and an announcement that people who visit bars and restaurants should leave their contact details behind to assist with contact tracing – something which the British and Germans have already been doing for weeks. “Planning to grab a cocktail on a terrace, spend an afternoon shopping or visit family or friends? Everything is possible!” one local council tweeted a few days later.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the Dutch response to the virus has seemed underpowered. In early April, for example, de Jonge and Rutte announced an app would be developed to help trace the contacts of people who tested positive and prevent infection spreading. For months, the government insisted this app would form as a critical part of the solution to the pandemic. However, a contest to actually develop the app fizzled out embarrassingly, and four months after the original announcement, a version of the app is only being trialled by a small number of people in Twente. Germany’s app, meanwhile, already has roughly as many users as the Netherlands has people. Similarly, efforts to step up more low-tech means of test and tracing have not gone particularly smoothly. While the number of coronavirus tests completed has risen quickly, and some patients have reported excellent service, there have been worrying delays in some regions, and continued problems with contact tracing. Official data shows that a few weeks ago, about 98% of people who tested positive for the virus went on to complete a full contact-tracing process, but that’s now fallen to around 76% – meaning one in four patients don’t have their contacts traced at all. Last week, the health board in Amsterdam announced it would be forced to cut back on contact tracing because it had run out of capacity; reportedly partly because the authorities had wrongly estimated it would take five hours per case to complete the tracing, even though the WHO warned it would take twelve. Several people have told me that upon falling ill and requesting a test, they were told to travel to other cities to obtain one, which seems a bit like advising someone to put out a flaming match by taking it to a bucket of petrol.
In the media and in parliament, the debate has focused mainly on the issue of face masks. It’s fair to say that the evidence on whether masks can prevent infection among the public has always been somewhat mixed. It is, among other things, possible that people may act more carelessly when wearing them, may wear them incorrectly or may be more likely to touch their faces when wearing a mask, thereby increasing the risks of contamination. However, as time has passed, these fears largely have been discounted. The WHO, for instance, shifted from recommending that masks don’t need to be worn by healthy people in March to recommending widespread use of masks in high-risk locations in April, before recommending masks in most public places in June. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has similarly moved from scepticism to outright endorsement. In response to this shift, many countries have adjusted their own policies: masks are now effectively compulsory when shopping in much of the UK, Belgium, France, Germany and the USA. Yet following the advice of their own scientific advisers, the Dutch government remains adamant that masks aren’t just pointless, but perhaps actively harmful. In contrast with other world leaders, Mark Rutte has largely avoided being seen wearing one, and come close to actively telling people not to wear them. Amazingly, Donald Trump is now more pro-mask than the Dutch Prime Minister is.
The government has been quick to emphasise that they’re simply following the lead of scientific advisers, and that city mayors have the power to enforce stricter rules if they want to. However, the official explanations have sometimes seemed disingenuous – the website of the RIVM health advisory agency says “it is not necessary to wear a face mask [and] in these measures, the Netherlands is following the recommendations of the WHO” – but then links to WHO guidance which explicitly says non-medical masks should be used by the “general population in public settings, such as grocery stores, at work [and in] social gatherings”. The decision to devolve authority to the local level also means rules have varied widely from place to place. In Gouda, near where I live, you’re about as likely to encounter a mask-wearer on the street as you are to bump into an escaped lion, but in both Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the mayors have made masks compulsory in certain places. For members of the public, the contradicting policies are sometimes hard to navigate: if the mayor of your city says masks are essential but the Prime Minister says they’re useless, who should you listen to? And is it really essential for public safety that you wear a mask if you visit (say) the H&M store in Amsterdam, but not if you visit the H&M in the Hague or Utrecht? When I visited a hospital a couple of weeks ago I wore a mask, as it seemed the sensible thing to do. I was amazed to find that of the dozens of other patients, doctors, nurses and visitors on site, almost no-one else was wearing one. “Why are you wearing that?!” the receptionist asked when I arrived, as if I’d walked in wearing a fluffy panda suit.
When discussing all this, the most common response one hears is that masks are unnecessary because is distancing what matters. As the RIVM puts it on their website, “it is not necessary to wear a face mask” in the Netherlands because “we are avoiding crowded areas as much as possible, and we are staying 1.5 meters apart”. The problem is, though, that if you spend much time in any Dutch town or city, you may well conclude both these things are untrue: people very often don’t avoid crowded areas, and don’t stay 1.5 metres apart. A couple of weeks ago, an RIVM survey found that only 28 percent of Dutch people said they always or mostly obey distancing rules, compared with 63 percent a few months ago. Most alarmingly, asked how they behaved if they had coronavirus symptoms such as a bad cough, 89 percent said they went shopping, 63 percent said they visited friends or family and 47 percent said they still went to work. Things which some other Europeans accept as routine these days – social “bubbles”, strict curfews, quarantines, no visitors at home – are almost completely unfamiliar to the Dutch these days. “Many people who have symptoms are still not getting tested”, the RIVM has warned. In that context, it’s hardly surprising that infections are rising.
Why, though, has the government been reluctant to clamp down harder? As mentioned above, it’s partly down to an insistence on following expert advice, which is in principle an admirable thing to do, and in keeping with the Dutch tradition of consultative decision-making. Cultural factors also probably play a role: as I’ve written elsewhere, trust in public institutions in this country is high, and there’s a long tradition of assuming the state will intervene to protect you from existential natural threats, albeit usually of the watery variety. The laissez-faire instinct is also quite strong here – Rutte has repeatedly emphasised that he’s “not a dictator” and that people shouldn’t be treated “like children” and told what to do. Perhaps the best example of this libertarian impulse came when the city of Groningen announced a very Dutch form of curfew – no new customers in bars after 1.30 am – and some locals reacted with outrage at the gross infringement of their civil liberties. Dutch people seem laid-back, but don’t like being told what to do. More troubling is the air of triumphalism which emanates from certain members of the commentariat and political class, who point proudly at declining infections while ignoring the horrendous overall death toll; like airline pilots who’ve lost passengers in a terrible crash but are boasting that they’ve lived to fly another day. One wonders how many of those who lament the terrible handling of the pandemic in other countries are aware that by some measures, their own country hasn’t done that much better. In terms of excess mortality, about 27% more Dutch people have died this year than in a usual year, compared with 31% more in France, 45% in the UK and 40% in Belgium, but only 6% in Denmark and 5% in Germany. Rutte’s decision to label his policy the “intelligent lockdown” was clearly a genius piece of branding, even if the main thing which distinguishes it from its foreign rivals is that it’s hard to detect at all. “Invisible lockdown” might be more appropriate.
In the interests of balance, it’s fair to point out that the Netherlands’ response to the virus hasn’t been unusually terrible so far, and things could still turn out relatively well, if one overlooks the minor matter of ten thousand dead. This country is inherently more vulnerable to the virus than somewhere like New Zealand is, and the country’s leaders were, like everyone else, flying blind at the beginning. The government has responded decisively at times and approached the pandemic in an admirably pragmatic and bipartisan way. Many other nations would think themselves lucky to have such moderate and sensible leaders. At the practical level, testing has been scaled up and hundreds of extra intensive care beds have been created, meaning the country is better prepared to handle a spike in infections than it was a few months ago. Quarantine rules for travellers are about to be tightened. By some measures the rules aren’t that lax already – Oxford University’s government response tracker, which also takes into account things like school closures and travel advice, actually rates the Dutch policy as stricter than Britain’s. Politically, Rutte’s strategy also appears wise: a poll this week by I&O found that three quarters of voters support the general approach of the government, while only 29 percent think the authorities are losing and control. Many shops and businesses have adapted their facilities well, and the activities which many people are now doing – meeting friends outside, going to the park, sitting on a terrace – are not particularly dangerous, yet provide a huge boost to both mental health and the economy. The early signs are that the export-dependent Dutch economy has been hit hard, but not quite as badly as some other countries: the IMF currently forecasts Dutch GDP will shrink by nearly 8% this year, compared to about 10% in Britain and nearly 13% in France. A rise in infections is probably inevitable at some point, but another lockdown now, or even the adoption of masks, could damage the economy further and make it harder to enforce stricter rules in the winter. The death toll has been distressingly high, but in the two countries which are arguably most similar to the Netherlands in culture, geography and economy – Britain and Belgium – the toll seems might higher. It’s also important to note that although the number of infections here is rising sharply, the number of new hospital admissions and deaths remains, at the moment, low: in the last few days, more people have drowned swimming at Dutch beaches than have died from coronavirus.
A few months ago, I wrote that it was possible that the pandemic response would prove to the be the Dutch Polder Model’s finest hour, and I think that could turn out to be the case. It’s entirely possible that in the future, we’ll look back and conclude that the Netherlands achieved roughly similar outcomes to comparable countries in terms of lives lost, but at less cost to the economy, society and mental health. It could well be that I and others are – as I’m told on social media daily – fretting over minor problems which will soon fizzle out like a firework in the rain. However, as one looks at the juxtaposition between the increasingly dire infection data and increasingly blasé attitudes to infection control, there are serious reasons to be concerned. Deaths and hospital admissions usually lag a few weeks behind people getting sick, and many infections currently are among the under-40s, who are less likely to get seriously ill. However, if (when) the virus starts spreading to more vulnerable people again, we could easily end up back where we were a few months ago. Unfortunately, Thierry Baudet’s confident prediction that the virus would disappear when warm weather came has not proved correct. In late May, the basic reproductive number in the Netherlands (R0, or the average number of other people which an infected person infects) was 0.52; now it’s 1.3. Whatever one’s view of masks or lockdowns, it’s undeniable that the Netherlands is something of an outlier in northern Europe with respect to its current policy. It’s also clear that there have been genuine problems with testing and tracing, and that social distancing guidelines are being only loosely adhered to. And it seems undeniable that despite the breezy atmosphere, things are quickly getting worse. The French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, said this Tuesday that his country was going “the wrong way” on the pandemic and announced stricter guidance on masks and on public gatherings, after France saw nearly 1,400 new infections in a single day. That same day, the Netherlands – a country with a population roughly one-quarter that of France’s – reported 779 new infections, yet life here goes on unchanged. A scolding from the Prime Minister feels necessary, but insufficient. With terrible irony, a country which is essentially one big disaster prevention scheme might be sleepwalking into a catastrophe.
A coronavirus horror story – or the Polder Model’s finest hour?
King’s Day in the Netherlands is always more or less the same. Almost the whole country takes the day off, and the streets are flooded with people dressed in orange, drinking beer and generally acting as if they’ve been given get-out-of-jail-free cards. Except this year, in the age of coronavirus, it wasn’t like that at all. The celebrations last Monday were muted, and when I passed briefly through Gouda that morning I found no music being played, no beer being drunk, and almost no-one wearing orange. The bars were closed and the main square was empty. Arriving back home, I caught the tail end of the King’s address to the nation on TV. “I intensely looked forward to images of … the Dutch going completely out of their minds”, he said, posing rather awkwardly next to a staircase in one of the royal palaces. “However, it was not to be so… The disappointment was palpable.”
The King isn’t alone in finding the current situation difficult to comprehend. In many ways, the Dutch have experienced the Covid-19 pandemic just as many others in Europe have. With the health system under terrible pressure, the country has been locked down for weeks. Millions of people have been working from home, holidays have been cancelled and businesses are operating awkwardly using Zoom. Schools and daycare centres are largely closed, most restaurants are shut, and even the brothels have switched off their red lights. People without kids are apparently watching lots of Netflix, while people with kids are quickly coming around to the idea that teachers should be paid more. Everyone misses bars, and everyone needs a haircut.
In many other ways, however, the Netherlands’ lockdown is quite different to those imposed elsewhere. In other parts of Europe, most “non-essential” stores remain closed and personal freedom is tightly restricted, but here much remains open. In Gouda (the town nearest to where I live) most of the eateries on the main square have been sealed off like crime scenes but many of the clothes shops, bookshops, cookery shops and jewellery shops are still open. (Sadly, the local risk consultancy business is closed.) I’ve mostly stayed at home for two months now, but if I wanted to I could go out to browse new shoes in the sports shop tomorrow, get some keys cut, eat a sandwich at Subway, choose some new furniture at the woonboulevard, have a new passport photo taken and then buy a fresh stroopwafel on the way home. At the national level, one large-scale survey carried a few weeks ago by the bank ING found that forty percent of Dutch people were still going out to work every day as normal. Many of those people are probably essential workers, but some are not, and the definition of what constitutes “essential business” often feels loose. Last week, Dutch social media feeds were filled with photos of long lines outside Ikea stores across the country. “It really is not a good idea to go to Ikea to buy a mug or a plant”, one virologist in Leiden told the Parool. “I understand that people want to go out and do normal things again. But, unfortunately, life is not normal.” The Dutch lockdown, in short, isn’t that locked and isn’t that down.
The differences between the Netherlands and many other European countries aren’t just anecdotal. According to Oxford University’s “government response stringency index”, the lockdown here not only started later than those in countries including Belgium, Denmark, Germany and France, but has mostly been much laxer. (The British locked down later than the Dutch but have been somewhat stricter since then.) The Dutch “intelligent lockdown” feels in many ways like the epitome of the famous ‘Polder Model’ in action: the government has consulted with experts, discussed everything for ages, and then ended up choosing a middle way which feels like a hybrid of the American, Scandinavian and German approaches, and which doesn’t really please anyone. Comparing Dutch government’s lockdown rules directly with their British equivalents, the differences are striking. In Britain, the government says “you should not be meeting friends unless you live in the same household”; while in the Netherlands, the official guidance says merely “have as few visitors as possible (no more than 3 at a time)”. In Britain, the government says “you can… go outside once a day for a walk, run or cycle [but] you must minimize the time you are out of your home”; while in the Netherlands they say unlimited “walking, cycling or running outside remains permitted”. In Britain, the government says “make sure you are at least two metres or six feet away from other people”, while in the Netherlands they say “keeping your distance means staying at least 1.5 metres away from others”. And so on. “This is a grown-up country”, Prime Minister Mark Rutte explained, in the proud tones of a parent letting a teenager borrow the car keys for the first time. “People are glad that they are treated as adults, not as children”.
Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find evidence that the laid-back lockdown has come at a price. As armchair epidemiologists have been quick to point out, the Dutch death toll is (relative to the size of the population) far lower than in places like Spain or Italy, but far higher than in Denmark, Germany and most of Scandinavia. At the time of writing, the Netherlands has roughly three times the population of Denmark but more than ten times as many recorded coronavirus deaths. And (as in many countries) the official death tolls here are probably seriously under-reported, with coronavirus testing very limited and many deaths (including in elderly care homes) likely going unrecorded. The government’s strategy has sometimes been unclear, and foreign verdicts on the Dutch approach to fighting the pandemic (including an early dalliance with ‘herd immunity’) have often been harsh. “The Dutch government is incompetent and ridiculous in its response to the coronavirus crisis,” the mayor of one Belgian town near the border said in March, when the Belgians were locking down hard but the Dutch weren’t. “The Netherlands is doing nothing, so we have to protect ourselves.” The mayor of another border town called the Netherlands “the weakest link in the European chain.” A Dutch acquaintance of mine was even harsher. “If even the Belgians think you’ve f***ed up, then you must have done something really wrong”.
Within the Netherlands, there’s also been strong criticism of the government’s approach. Geert Wilders, for example, has moved seamlessly between castigating Muslim women for wearing face coverings in public and expressing outrage that more people don’t wear anti-viral face masks. Yet overall, it’s striking how little dissent there’s been. Mark Rutte has won plaudits for his calm, bank-manager leadership style. As so often, the Dutch state has also been a model of constructive bipartisanship – when the health minister abruptly resigned a few weeks ago, he was replaced not by someone from within the governing coalition, but by a member of the opposition Labour Party, or PvdA. (“This crisis is so big that party colour is irrelevant” Rutte said.) Some people I speak to are angry at the government’s performance, but most seem quite content; trusting their leaders to do the right thing. Curiously, one of the more reliable mortality datasets, produced by the FT using excess mortality figures (that is, the difference in the total number of people dying now compared with the same time last year) shows that the Netherlands has experienced 52% more deaths than in a usual year – exactly the same increase as in Britain. Yet the political atmosphere is far less febrile, and most people seem surprisingly content. A few weeks ago, posters appeared on many of the roads around Gouda, addressed to Rutte and several other politicians (from multiple parties) who are leading the coronavirus response, bearing a simple message: “THANK YOU, for leading our country in this Dutch way”. A little trite, maybe, but oddly touching – and not something one’s likely to see in certain other countries right now.
Why, then, has the Dutch lockdown been so laid back, and so widely accepted? The explanation is, I think, partly cultural. The Netherlands is a nation surrounded by existential natural threats, and the Dutch authorities have over the years become exceedingly competent at keeping them at bay. Talk of “first waves” and “second waves” deluging the country have a particular resonance here. Political turmoil is limited, serious violence is rare, and there’s been no conflict on Dutch soil for three-quarters of a century. Partly as a result, surveys show that most people have faith that the government is competent and trustworthy, and are reasonably content to just let them get on with things. However (if you’ll forgive a bit of cultural stereotyping) the Dutch also don’t much like being told what to do. Watching the lockdown unfold, I’m often reminded of the Dutch policy on soft drugs, which essentially consists of making clear rules against things but then refusing to enforce them. Above all, the Dutch often take pride in not panicking during a crisis. Even vaguely hinting that they might be ill-informed or careless can feel like telling French people that their food’s bad or Germans that they don’t know how to make good cars: a blatant assault on core national values. The problem, though, is that the much-loved nuchterheid (sobriety) sometimes veers uncomfortably close to roekeloosheid (recklessness).
This week, the government announced that most of the lockdown will be lifted soon. Things like nursery schools and hairdressers will reopen next week, and bars, restaurants and cinemas soon thereafter. Sex clubs will sadly remain closed until September. The changes in some ways feel inevitable – lockdowns can’t last forever, and impose their own colossal economic, social and public health costs. But again, the Dutch seem to be taking a more liberal approach than many of their neighbours. In Germany, for example, the lockdown is also being eased, but mask use is widespread and the plans for reopening cinemas, day care and restaurants remains unclear. The UK, similarly, also looks set to announce some easing, but hasn’t been in a hurry to provide much detail – Dominic Raab has said setting a timetable for changing the strategy would be “irresponsible”. In France, restrictions are easing but will remain stricter in Paris. Things are changing fast, but the Dutch lockdown looks likely to have started later, been less strict, and been lifted earlier than those in many other places.
As restrictions are eased, it’s easy for people like me (with a pre-existing health condition) to be worried. Testing remains limited, and tracing apps seem a long way from widespread roll-out. Even after nearly two months of lockdown, I’m amazed by how many people still approach me with basic questions about what the current rules are: are they allowed to have friends around? Can they go clothes shopping? Isn’t this just the flu? People interpret the guidelines differently, and while some act as if there’s been a nuclear war and it’s perilous to step outside, others carry on with normal life much as they did before. As new rules are introduced, these problems with consistency may worsen – why, for example, should people feel compelled to work from home to stay safe if they’re also allowed to go out for beers and have dinner with friends in the evening? When I cycled past my local park this morning, I noticed it was busier than it’s been for weeks – partly because the weather’s nice, but probably also because people have already started to relax. When I think about the primary schools re-opening next week, and all the parents going to drop their kids off and seeing their friends for the first time in months, and arranging to have coffee at the weekend, and then stopping at the shops on the way home, I find it hard to imagine that infections aren’t about to increase sharply again. The road to normalcy is a proverbial slippery slope, and there’s a serious risk of a second wave.
However, the big plot twist is that the laid-back lockdown might actually be working. As discussed above, it’s easy to build a case that the Dutch response to coronavirus has been a disaster. But in many other ways, the Netherlands seems to be doing about as well as one could expect. This country is in many ways particularly vulnerable to an emerging pandemic, given its high population density, open borders, massive ports and airports, and sizeable elderly population. Given its small size, the Netherlands is also always likely to look bad on those deaths-per-million-people data tables – and at this point in the pandemic, international data is so varied and unreliable that making meaningful comparisons is almost impossible. (Belgium, for example, looks pretty bad but diligently counts deaths in nursing homes in a way that most of its neighbours don’t.) Yet there are also reasons to be optimistic. The Dutch healthcare system, for example, has been stretched hard but before the pandemic was regularly judged to be the best in Europe; and the widespread habit of cycling means it’s easier for people to avoid crowds on public transport. There’s plenty of data which suggests the country has turned a corner and got things under control. The FT’s excess mortality dataset shows Dutch fatalities following a fairly smooth bell curve: rising quickly at first, but then being brought under control as the lockdown kicked in, and turning sharply downwards even as deaths in countries like Britain and France continued to rise. Similarly, the Dutch government’s official records of coronavirus deaths and intensive care admissions have shown declines for weeks now, with bar graphs looking more mountain-shaped than any of the landscape around here. Intensive care use has stayed within capacity, and the worst visions of a month or two ago have not (yet) materialised. Things have been bad, but now the curve is flattening, and many feel we’ve turned a corner. And crucially, normal life is continuing here in a way which it doesn’t in many other parts of the world. “I’ve been ashamed of how things have gone in many ways”, someone said to me last week, “but people need hope, and they need reasons to live, and the intelligent lockdown has given them that”.
It will probably be months or even years before we can compare ‘performance’ internationally in any reliable way; let alone make complex judgements about whether the trade-offs between liberty, economy and healthcare were worthwhile. At the moment, the uncomfortable truth is that countries’ experiences depend on so many different factors – lockdown stringency, timing, medical capacity, demography, race, obedience, government competence, lifestyles, attitudes, weather – that trying to identify the perfect policy response is like the children’s book ‘George’s Marvelous Medicine’, in which the hero creates a magical potion but then can’t figure out which mix of ingredients he needs to make it again. Clearly, the Dutch experience has been awful – between February and March alone, an extra eleven thousand people signed on for unemployment benefits. At least 5,000 people have died; an unspeakable tragedy which should never be downplayed. However, at this point it also seems possible – absolutely not certain, but possible – that the “intelligent lockdown” will prove to be exactly that, and that the Dutch could provide a road map for how to suppress the virus while allowing some degree of normal life to continue. The Netherlands might – might – end up roughly matching the performance of other countries in combating the virus, while doing less damage to their economy, society and mental health in the process. As the King said in his speech, 2020 might turn out to be the “absolutely the last King’s Day at Home in history.” If so, this might yet be the Polder Model’s finest hour.
For a Brit in the Netherlands, voting in yesterday’s elections was a strange experience. I cycled to the polling station, of course, along a thin strip of land sandwiched between lakes and rivers, past advertising banners which pledged no more windmills in the surrounding fields. The polling station was a church built in the fourteenth century, and a traffic jam had formed outside as a farmer left his tractor running while he voted. Inside, the options on the voting paper were truly bewildering. Two elections were taking place simultaneously – the local water board and the Dutch provincial authorities, which will in turn choose who sits in the national Senate – and the voting papers included dozens of parties and names. I couldn’t vote in both elections, but picking a candidate to support still felt like choosing a meal from a very long menu at a Chinese takeaway. The choose-your-vote websites I consulted weren’t much help either: did I support investing more in uncoupling rainwater from sewage pipes, or not?
Twenty-four hours later, that bucolic atmosphere already seems a long time ago. In some ways the outcome of the provincial elections was unsurprising: the parties in Mark Rutte’s governing coalition lost some votes, smaller opposition parties gained, and the political landscape grew even more fractured. The new Senate will include more than a dozen different parties – enough to make an Englishman, raised on diet of two-party politics, dizzy. In other ways, though, the results were seismic. Two years after Rutte was re-elected and Dutch populism “defeated”, the far right did stunningly well. Results are still coming in at the time of writing, but in my province of Zuid Holland, Thierry Baudet’s hard-right Forum voor Democratie (FvD) seems to have won more seats than any other party. Together, the FvD and Geert Wilders’ PVV more than three times as many seats in Zuid Holland as the centre-left PvdA or Greens did. In Utrecht, where three people died in a gun attack just before the elections, Baudet’s FvD won six provincial seats, up from zero. This all means that in the national Senate, the FvD is set to hold more seats than Mark Rutte’s VVD, depriving the government of its small majority and forcing it to find new allies. In some towns, the anti-immigrant, anti-establishment right won 40% of the vote.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about all this is that just a few years ago, Thierry Baudet wasn’t a politician at all, and was relatively unknown outside rightwing policy circles. That began to change in 2016, when he helped orchestrate a vociferous campaign against EU proposals to build closer links with Ukraine. The issue at stake may have been obscure, but Baudet skilfully used the campaign as a springboard to launch his own political career, making blistering speeches and making snappy YouTube films of his travels. Media-friendly and technology-savvy, Baudet looks like a Gap model, and knows it. In the 2017 national elections, his FvD managed to win an impressive 187,000 votes; enough to win him and a colleague seats in parliament. For a new party, operating in a system where even major parties might win only a couple of dozen seats, it’s been a meteoric rise. “In three years I’ll probably be Prime Minister of the Netherlands”, Baudet said last year, and he meant it.
Given the way the Dutch political system works, a Baudet premiership is still highly unlikely. However, there’s little doubt that his continued rise could be transformative, given his views. In recent years Baudet has, among other things, signed a letter doubting the Russians were responsible for shooting down flight MH17, praised Donald Trump, implied that women enjoy being dominated by men, and strongly opposed measures to tackle climate change. Many of Baudet’s supporters dispute the allegation that he’s racist, and it’s true he seems to care more about values and religion than skin colour. But there’s also little doubt that he often speaks in terms which appeal to white nationalists; agreeing, for example, with allies who claimed black people were less intelligent than whites, and arguing that “malevolent, aggressive elements are being smuggled into our society in unprecedented numbers”. He met with Marine Le Pen, and also had a five-hour private dinner in Amsterdam with Jared Taylor, a notorious American white supremacist. While other parties suspended their campaigning after the Utrecht attack, Baudet did not, and blamed the incident on the government’s lax immigration policies. Large-scale immigration, he once tweeted, is a “great crime”.
Generalising about groups of voters is always a risky business, but when I’ve spoken to people who support Baudet’s FvD, I’ve often been struck by the dissonance between their politics and their lived experience. Many of Baudet’s supporters have (like other Dutch people) seen their lives improve immeasurably in the last decade or two. Their incomes have risen, their job stability has improved and their quality of life increased. And yet the same people are adamant that Netherlands is on a profoundly wrong course; getting “worse than it used to be” in almost every way. Their experience of recent Dutch history is entirely positive, but their perception of it is wholly negative. And Baudet agrees. “We are standing amidst the debris of what was once the greatest and most beautiful civilization the world has ever known,” he said after the election results were announced.
In other countries, populism is often (largely but not completely) rooted in economic pressures. The stereotypical Trump voter, for example, is low-income worker from the post-industrial Rust Belt, left high and dry as jobs and money flow overseas. With Baudet supporters, though, this explanation doesn’t ring true. Some Dutch people have struggled economically – in harbour towns around Rotterdam, for example, jobs are being lost to automation and unemployment is high. But on the whole, the “left behind” in places like Zuid Holland are a tiny group. The Dutch economy grew at 2.5% last year, and unemployment is low and falling. GDP per capita in the Netherlands remains about twenty per cent higher than in Britain or France. The Dutch Rust Belt would fit in a Michigan backyard.
In that context, the bigger rifts in Dutch politics are arguably not economic but cultural. Despite its reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, this is still a rather old-fashioned country, where families are close-knit and neighbours frown if you don’t wash your windows. Given their history of floods and invasions, many Dutch are naturally risk averse, and have a subtle tendency to see their homeland as a bastion against external forces. In a closely-networked society where many people live their whole lives within a small radius of the place where they were born, the arrival of a handful of headscarves can be very noticeable. More importantly, people like Baudet have also played off a sense that the Netherlands is governed by an elite which doesn’t understand the issues faced by “real people”.
In this, he perhaps isn’t entirely wrong. Mark Rutte is the archetypal Davos man, and places like Spijkenisse feel a long way from the embassies and ministries of The Hague. Coalition governments are the norm in the Netherlands, and governments typically are formed only after weeks or months of secretive negotiation. This tradition of backroom compromise is in many ways admirable – the dogged pursuit of consensus is one reason minority groups have usually been well-protected. Yet it’s also a weakness in that it muddies the relationship between the government and the governed. Talking to Dutch voters, I’ve often been struck by how they take it for granted that their leaders may not deliver what they’ve promised. In Britain, promise to abolish tuition fees and then do the opposite and your political career will be over. Do the same in the Netherlands and many people would shrug: if you end up working in partnership with your rivals, you’re bound to compromise on some things. In that context, the rise of people like Baudet is perhaps unsurprising: when the system looks like a bit of a stitch-up, it’s easy to run as an outsider. In the great tradition of Dutch compromise, Baudet also cleverly plays both sides: presenting himself as a member of the intellectual elite (writing books about art, installing a piano in his office) while also delighting in disrupting the system from outside and offending the governing class. In many countries, populists play up their man-of-the-people credentials but Baudet does the opposite. He’s self-consciously cerebral, but not patrician: a guy who knows how the system works, but hates it and wants to smash it.
Baudet has also benefited from the decline of Geert Wilders and his party, the PVV. A few years ago, when Baudet was unknown, it was Wilders who stormed the polls and Wilders who was talked of as a future Prime Minister. Now, though, the tables have turned, and the FvD’s rise has been fuelled significantly by voters defecting from the PVV. There are many reasons for this, but they include the way that Baudet has been more careful than Wilders about respecting the red lines which no Dutch politician should cross if they want to win mass support: don’t be openly racist, don’t seem intolerant, don’t be homophobic. In my first book, I wrote about how a previous generation of rightwing leaders such as Pim Fortuyn, were careful to “present intolerance of Muslims as a means of safeguarding Dutch tolerance”; arguing that “only by kicking out intolerant foreigners can the Netherlands preserve its peace and prosperity”. Baudet has been doing largely the same: opposing immigration in ways which make it him hard to label as racist. Baudet presumably shares a lot of Wilders’ views, but you would never hear him referring to Moroccans as “scum” or standing trial for hate speech. Instead, he uses the language of a radical but thoughtful scholar, arguing that “the West is suffering from an autoimmune disorder” and “control over our lives is insidiously and increasingly taken away from us by devious acts of surrender”. While Wilders often seems driven by anger and resentment, Baudet pitches on a higher plane: the defence of European culture against the corrosive forces of socialism, globalism and political correctness. As a result, Baudet (who’s still in his thirties) is popular with younger voters who view Wilders as yesterday’s man, and with more educated voters who see Wilders as crude. Even a hint that Baudet might be racist or intolerant brings a flood of protest from his supporters, who insist he’s just an honest man telling it like it is.
Baudet isn’t an appalling fascist and isn’t a threat to democracy. In the Dutch system, it’s not particularly hard for mainstream parties to block extremists from gaining power. It’s also important to remember that only about half of Dutch voters turned up for this election, and only about a fifth of those voted FvD. Some of the parties which did well, such as GroenLinks, are the antithesis of the FvD. Baudet’s rise will, however, upset the balance of power profoundly, and shows that Dutch populism has a long way to run. The European elections in May are bound to be bumpy.
More worryingly, from a foreigner’s perspective, one can’t help but feel that some Dutch institutions aren’t very well equipped to weather the gathering storm. Dutch journalists sometimes seem too busy being appalled at the likes of Viktor Orban to robustly tackle the unpleasantries in their own backyard. And other politicians seem to lack the appetite to fight back. One of the charms of Dutch politics is how gentle and civilised it all seems, but a side effect of that is that when more virulent or unpleasant forces arise, the mainstream isn’t prepared to respond forcefully enough. When politics isn’t usually a blood sport, it’s easier for radicals to rise. And in the grey area between “racist” and “not racist” there are a lot of places to hide.
The lighthouse at Schokland stands on a raised sea wall, next to a small stone cottage with a view of the harbour. In front of it, a wooden pier juts out towards the navigation lights marking the edge of the island. It is a charming nautical scene, with only one thing missing: the sea. Schokland, which lies about an hour’s drive northeast of Amsterdam, used to be an island but is now marooned amid green fields, around fifty miles from the coast. The harbour is dry. Fat Friesian cows graze where fish once swam, and a woman leads a horse across a grassy pasture which once lay underwater.
Anywhere else in the world, a former island would be considered extraordinary. In the Netherlands, however, such things are relatively common. In the area around Schokland several other former islands are scattered like beached whales, and there are countless towns and villages built on former seabed. About a quarter of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and huge swathes of the country consist of land which has painstakingly been drained to make it habitable. “God created the world,” as one local saying goes, “but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”
Read the rest of the article in the Daily Telegraph here