COVID-19 and the Netherlands

This morning I read an article that outlined how the Netherlands has been getting record-breaking (as compared to previous numbers in the Netherlands) cases of COVID-19 in the past five days. There are times when I can be proud of living here, but this is certainly not one of those times.

Because my wife is American, and she moved here to be with me, discussing international and intercultural differences is almost a daily topic of conversation. At my work as well, the topic comes up regularly; I recently transferred from the academies of Commerce & International Business and International Business Administration, to the Stenden Hotel Management School, which hosts the International Hospitality Management programs. Basically, pretty much all of my life is steeped in internationalism in one way or another.

One of the things that my wife and I have spoken of frequently is the behavioral tendencies of our fellow citizens. There are many pros and cons to the average American and Dutch attitudes, but there’s one that’s quite telling in these times. Overall, we’ve noticed that, at least in the south of the USA, people by-and-large tend to take others into account in a lot of social situations. My wife, who is disabled, gets offered room to walk as well as doors being opened to her whenever we are in the US. By comparison, in the Netherlands, it almost seems as if people are irritated by her intrusion in their life—people will sigh and swerve around us quickly, and college-age kids will pretend to be very busy with their phones or whatever is out the bus windows so that they don’t have to get up out of the disabled seats, leaving my wife having to try and find less-suitable seating.

It’s quite an interesting difference, given that on a governmental level, the situation seems mostly reversed when we compare the two countries. While the US certainly does have better access to most buildings (ramps and elevators everywhere!), its overall social programs to support disabled people pales by comparison to what is offered to citizens in the Netherlands. In the USA, providing budgets for healthcare is a political debate; in the Netherlands, it’s a common-sense element of the budget that needs little discussion beyond how much should go where.

We’ve theorized that the latter potentially causes the former; that is to say, we wonder whether the support offered by the government allows the individuals in the Netherlands to alleviate their feelings of social responsibility. We wonder if the state of social care in the USA causes people to feel as though they are in the same boat, so they take care of each other; by comparison, perhaps the average Dutch person feels like they don’t have to care—after all, the government does that for you! That’s why we pay taxes!

Our naive (in the sense of being unscientifically formulated) theorizing about this also applies to what we see around us in how people approach COVID-19. We live in Friesland, which is a northern, rural province of the Netherlands. Over here, you will hardly see a facemask outside of public transport (where it is required to wear one). Tracy and I always wear one when going out, and you can tell it makes people uncomfortable: some people chuckle, others look fearfully at us. There’s also a lot of misunderstanding regarding them. A few days ago, I spoke to a colleague who asked me whether the facemask made me feel more safe. I explained to her that a masks doesn’t protect me much, but it does protect those around me. This was from a colleague who was well-informed about COVID-19, and took care herself as well, but it does show how poorly information about this pandemic is disseminated in the Netherlands.

I believe this might have to do with the general attitude of Dutch people. Call it individualism, call it self-centeredness, but either way it revolves around Dutch people taking care of themselves first and others second. It leads to people thinking things like “Well, I’m not sick, so I don’t have to take care right now” (an argument I’ve heard from another colleague). There’s also some common denial, that I link to a little Dutch arrogance—I’ve frequently heard statements like “Well, it’s not as bad here as it is in X.” It’s a mix of misunderstanding of exponential growth, a lack of information about COVID-19 and the possible consequences, and different attitudes towards risk-management.

But the thing that surprises me most of all is just the utter callousness. The street outside is packed. Almost nobody wears facemasks (when we do have to go out, we can count the number of people who were them on the fingers of one hand). Almost nobody socially distances. I can understand that the individualism leads people to consider the risks mostly for themselves and, apparently, they find them acceptable. But what they ignore is that there are so many people that run a much greater risk of much greater consequences: the eldery, people with compromised immunosystems, people with asthma—the list goes on. I strongly link that attitude to the Dutch sense of individualism. You take care of yourself. If you need something, you should go ahead and ask for it (there is a Dutch expression: “No is what you have; yes is what you can get”). I enjoy how this attitude makes people assertive, but I detest how callous it makes us.

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