I grew up with an anaesthesiologist father; and my first job as a teenager was working as a ward secretary for the oncology and respiratory departments in a local hospital in the USA; where I learned the day to day for the patients and nurses around vulnerable patients. As an adult I have worked for multinational hygiene, medical device & drug companies for 9 years. My jobs over the last decade have centred on forecasting product requirements so production plants can have what is needed ready in the warehouse on time for customers to buy; and this is done via a combination of statistical methodology and market intelligence. So perhaps my despair at the way the Netherlands has reacted to the Covid19 emergency is more about my background and experience than the fact that I am an expat. However; my perspective as an expat tells me that the Netherlands has done –compared to its fellow EU member states– poorly in reaction time, communication, and frankly recognition of the true extent of the pandemic within the Netherlands. I feel like this pandemic and the way the Dutch have behaved since Rutte’s first speech; where he stated very clearly the economy comes above all else, has opened my eyes to the true nature of the Dutch in a way I would never otherwise have easily come to understand.
In my current job I work for a provider of medical devices that are aimed at reducing contamination in the medical setting; and much of the portfolio sold in Europe is centered on treatment of critical care patients. In the Netherlands office we run the operations for all the European customers; which are as varied as individual hospitals, regional consortiums, buying groups and distributors. Initially at work we started talking about corona only insofar as how it would affect the supply to us of items that might be impacted by what was happening in China. As late as February we were still thinking that it might cause supply problems but not that it would jump to Europe. However; we saw in late February that orders from Italy were rising; and then Italy went into lockdown. In our daily calls to align the team members located around Europe, the Italian was telling us about how serious things were but you could see on the faces of the people in the Dutch office that they were “being polite” when listening and when the call was over they would jest about the poor Italian all cooped up and going stir crazy.
Then, due to a completely different illness I started working from home the week before Spain declared a State of Emergency. Even during that week; with death tolls rising rapidly and orders from both Spain and Italy coming in at 5 and 6 times the normal volumes, my Dutch boss didn’t seem to think it might happen here. When I told my boss I had seen the graphs of infection rates and that the Netherlands was following exactly the same curve as Italy and Spain he didn’t seem to take it in. When I said they had had an expert on the news to show this graph then he listened but still apparently wanted to make light of it; like if taking something seriously might be poor form or bad luck. Then that Friday Spain declared a state of emergency and on television I watched the Dutch parliament arguing about what to do about the people in Brabant and was dismayed that only Wilders seemed to say people’s lives should come first. Rutte actually rolled his eyes when Wilders said that. When I (via office chat) said to my Dutch colleague that I didn’t understand how Rutte could do that the response I got was “they will never share power again”. I realised the Dutch are psychologically in a completely different place from any Mediterranean person if they don’t even comprehend I could be dismayed to see that the prime minister of the country I am living in doesn’t prioritise lives over the economy. Wilders; the man who doesn’t want me in his country and doesn’t want to be in the EU, seemed to be the only one arguing to safeguard my health.
I made the same comment on a facebook group and the Dutchies there replied Wilders was only trying to be popular and I should calm down. Never mind that telling people to calm down when they ask a simple question is pretty rude, in this situation I have heard it repeatedly from Dutch people every time I ask them to consider any new data that challenges the idea that Rutte’s government is perfectly on top of things.
That weekend Rutte came out with the idea that people should work from home as much as possible; and our HR department sent a message indicating that the USA headquarters wanted us to work from home until further notice. I was relieved to not have to go back to the office in light of how lightly the Dutch seemed to be taking things. Honestly a lot of my relief centred around the poor hygiene I see in daily life here in the Netherlands. A lot of people don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, they normally cough into the air without even pretending to cover their mouths, and I have seen people put used cutlery and plates back in the kitchen cupboard without washing them. Let alone beer festivals where glasses get a quick rinse rather than a wash before being used for a different customer. Fingers crossed all the messages about hand washing stick with the Dutch after this is over…
I did have to go to a house inspection that could not be rescheduled and one of the people there was stroppy and offended that I did not want to shake hands. The other person there was complaining about having to close her business for no reason she could understand. To be fair the Dutch authorities kept treating it like it was nothing so no wonder she didn’t understand. The experts in the press conferences at that time were still saying that you only need to stay home if you feel ill: completely ignoring the evidence and experience that China, Italy and Spain could offer. I wondered if they might be doing it on purpose to get as many people ill as quickly as possible.
Even in the Saturday morning news it seemed to be a joke because they showed graphs that used bread and breakfast spreads to show how much better Netherlands was doing even before – according to their own government – anything had even started to happen. When I posted on a Facebook expat group that the spread of the virus was EXTREMELY fast and that the information on the RIVM page saying if you don’t feel ill you can go outside was irresponsible and wrong; I was attacked for raising panic. When I tried posting a message that mask sellers on bol.com were giving a second mask free (because even a cloth mask is better than no mask if we are trying to prevent the spread) my post was blocked. All the corona posts were blocked from all the expats groups that weekend and I felt it was a sort of mass censorship of reality to keep the foreigners quiet about what was going on in their countries. Subsequently I asked one of the expats groups to reconsider this ban because a lot of expats don’t speak Dutch well enough to follow the local news and these groups are an essential platform and tool for those of us who don’t have great social networks here. I have made a great effort to learn Dutch well enough to watch the nightly news but I would feel lost if this was happening around me and I could not even follow the local or national news. Again I was torn down; this time with the admins of the group making personal attacks and false accusations, for contributing to panic. I was more than fed up with people reacting to attempts to discuss the accredited news and reported facts as contributing to panic so I stopped looking at those groups.
Then I did a quick check of the comparative number of ICU beds to see how might the Netherlands respond and I realised that not only does the Netherlands not have the concept of universal health coverage (we have to pay a private insurance monthly to be attended at any health service provider – unlike in Spain or Denmark or the UK); but even paying over €250 per month to get a cover that has a financial ceiling; the availability of care is very limited compared to other countries. There are half the number of ICU beds per inhabitant in the Netherlands versus Spain. I was dismayed over and over to see experts trotted out on the nightly news to say that the Netherlands had beaten the curve when it was far too early for the loose suggested measures to have had any effect. I was pissed off that the news didn’t even pick up on the issue of the number of total ICU beds for nearly two more weeks after I did; and even then they reported it from the perspective of “we won’t need them” until actually there weren’t enough and they had to send people to Germany. I can understand that in Holland they aren’t doing more testing because they don’t have the capacity or tests; but I cannot understand that they were reporting a figure they had to know with certainty was too low without any caveats for weeks.
A check of the national death statistics proves that Corona deaths in the Netherlands are about 50% higher than what RIVM is reporting on its website. They only added the caveat that actual deaths are probably higher last week when international papers ran stories about how the counts are different in every country and in the Netherlands only patients admitted to hospital are actually tested for the virus. https://opendata.cbs.nl/#/CBS/en/dataset/70895ENG/table
I think I find the behaviour of the Dutch government especially exasperating because the Spanish government is by comparison so extremely transparent. In Spain there are daily press conferences that detail even how many masks were delivered to each hospital; but here there have been only a couple of top line speeches where the messages were not clear enough to get the populace in line behind respecting the health threat. Now we are not half way through April and I see on the Dutch news it seems almost a foregone conclusion that restrictions will all be lifted after King’s Day; but at the same time they are showing videos from the “frontline” every day and one would hope that the message hits home. I do find it very curious that the “frontline” videos from the Netherlands include mostly well made up and rested people in front of a studiously good looking backdrop. I think of the videos from the Italian hospitals and it makes me think maybe it really isn’t so bad here; but then the numbers are what they are…
Of course I still have to go outside every day to walk my dogs. I have been wearing a face mask since March 13 but NO ONE in the town where I live has worn one any time I have been out in the last month. Initially people laughed at me openly; then after about a week they seemed to snigger nervously, and this last week they just smile at me like I am a dolt. Until last week I saw no reduction in the number of people about on the street and no one was respecting the distance. I have to go into the grass because people coming the other way do not waver from the centre of the path. Joggers actually bump into me (in the first weeks many of them coughing while jogging in groups – but I am not sure if that is stupidity or the Dutch sense of humour). When I had to go grocery shopping the first time a man very ostentatiously on purpose came up to cough in my face; and I do think it was because I was the only one in the store wearing a mask. Even after the local grocery store put the stickers on the floor the other customers do not respect the distances. I find it an extremely unpleasant experience to go buy groceries; but from what I see on the news this must be a small town experience because they show beautiful images of people in Amsterdam waiting in queues and security limiting the number of people inside the stores.
However; at least people in Spain are wearing masks and gloves. I think of the people I know in Spain and I think at least they have their head´s on straight. At least they aren’t acting like pretending a problem doesn’t exist will make it go away. The Dutch also don’t stay home (there is a google analytics report to prove it): https://www.rtlnieuws.nl/nieuws/artikel/5080246/nederland-europa-new-york-lockdown-social-distancing-lombardije-italie?fbclid=IwAR3nd2LMHPJeCQU01HFbO0tnWsGAFyGTRlQmgvT4jZROnJpxrrMTmbiLh_I
Throughout this I have had my spirits lifted by my family in Spain and Denmark sending me messages and videos and whatever nonsense in whatsapp; and I actually have more regular contact with them now than before because they are all bored at home in a genuine lockdown while I am working twice as much as normal due to the crisis. It was disappointing to me to see how much this crisis has been politicised in Spain and how the right wing is trying to blame the government for every failure. However; I know that no supplier can meet a five or six fold demand in the space of two weeks for items that take months to produce and place in market. So I am not surprised when there is a shortage of masks and I think it is sad that one party would try to blame that shortage on the incompetence of another political party when actually it is simply supply and demand. Seeing the way Spain has reacted and pulled together; and how the Dutch have behaved in comparison, has really made me homesick.