The New Brazil

A second wave – and realising I was wrong

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.

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