Personal and Collective Responsibility

Yesterday was King’s Day in the Netherlands: a collectivity holiday on the day of the king’s birthday. Aside from the fact that it’s bizarre that we still have a monarchy (why on earth do the royal family just get our tax money? Any role they fill should just be a publicly elected offic, but anyway), it was also another bizarre display of the Dutch COVID-19 response. So very few people here follow COVID-19 measures. I regularly get questions from my colleagues along the lines of “Wow, you even wear your mask outside?” – yes, that’s right, hardly anybody here wears a mask outside.

There are so many bits of misinformation that I hear around here. Children cannot get COVID-19; masks outside are unnecessary, because the open air will spread out the virus; masks might be harmful to your lungs, and so on. Worse still are the people who recognize that COVID-19 is an actual risk but seem to lack the ethics to protect others. Someone told me: “You know, you don’t have to wear your mask here, it’s okay.” Of course I don’t have to wear a facemask. None of these regulations are full-on laws, nor do the police seem to reinforce what few measures there are. I choose to wear a facemask to protect others.

The past year has really highlighted a part of Dutch culture that I don’t appreciate: its lack of collective responsibility. When the people I speak with make light of the risk they run themselves, on the face of it that seems like personal freedom. If they don’t see much risk in getting COVID-19, then they can choose to run the risk themselves. However, even a brief analysis of the idea shows that the main problem of this virus is how easily it transmits from one person to the next. So, sure, you can take a personal risk if you want but it turns into a collective risk.

Clearly, the examples I can list are all anecdotal. Maybe I just know many people whose ethics differ from mine – a highly likely scenario. However, this is a scenario that seems to be national. Hardly any Dutch person wears masks unless they are required to do so, yet the government just will not make it mandatory except for stores. Yesterday, during King’s Day, throughout the day I saw groups of drunken partiers meet up with larger groups, and hugs were exchanged among all as they shouted happily. As of today, the government is opening up bars and shops for regular business again, despite multiple hospitals warning that their intensive care units are reaching their newly-expanded capacity once again. The government’s own crisis advisory team has advised against easing restrictions.

Some of the public discourse that right-wing parties are trying to get going is that the real problem lies with the EU distribution schemes for vaccines: it’s because the EU ends up exporting the vaccine to many countries that the Netherlands doesn’t have enough vaccines, so we’re in this situation. For one, it completely ignores the repeated misinformation that these parties spread (one of the parties even organized its own anti-mask rally), but it also ignores the clear data that multiple other countries in the EU are doing much, much better than the Netherlands. Now, data is always tricky to interpret. Some journalists or Twitter users are indeed overrepresenting how poorly the Netherlands is doing in some measures, and as well the Netherlands is improving slightly, but that sidesteps the reality of the matter: we could have been in a far better situations had citizens responded better.

This weighs heavily on my mind. There are large issues that need tackling. We need to dismantle the capitalist system, and we need to prevent climate change at all costs. However, that takes collective action where individuals engage with the large, abstract structures responsible for our suffering. It takes pretty much exactly the type of behavior it would have taken to alleviate the pressures of COVID-19. At times, I feel downtrodden by the view outside my window, and the careless disregard of so many fellow citizens out there.

Every now and then there’s that glimmer of hope, though. The people who do move aside to make room for passers-by. The people who are wearing masks wherever they go. The people who seriously talk about what to do about the virus. The people who talk about the benefits of working from home, and in what ways they’d like work to change once the pandemic is over. There’s not many of us, but I just hope there’s enough.

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