One of our editors is based in both Luxembourg and the Netherlands, where he has witnessed a completely different reality of life under coronavirus. Two worlds, so close, yet so far away.
I've been calling the southern city of Maastricht my home for the past five years, mostly whizzing down the E25 motorway during the week to head to the RTL offices in Kirchberg. The pandemic, of course, has put a complete stop to this. But then spending five months indoors (virtually) immersed in Dutch corona-politics and observing societal behaviour has given me a rather peculiar insight into my own country.
The Netherlands did not do particularly well when it came to curbing the spread of the virus in April. Hospitals and their intensive care departments were completely overwhelmed, putting other regular operations on hold and forcing the government to rent out IC beds in neighbouring Germany to cope with numbers at home.
The liberty-loving Dutch strongly opposed a complete lockdown, so the government opted for a "smart lockdown", still shutting down bars and restaurants and limiting gatherings in households, encouraging working from home, but allowing people to go out for fresh air and generally go about their necessary business. Most emphasis was placed on maintaining distance, and the message that "together we will fight Covid-19" helped foster a feeling of community and teamwork.
But one thing that made the country stand out from most of its European counterparts was its reluctance to promote face masks. Just a month ago, you'd be laughed at for wearing one in the supermarket. The Netherlands, a country so rooted in science and reason, refused to impose mandatory face masks and believe in their effectiveness in the first place. Today, a large share of the population is wearing them. So what changed?
Number of cases between February and October. /
Start of pandemic: Face masks don't work
The Dutch are a stubborn and liberal folk, two words that do not necessarily sit well together in times of crisis in which a government, with the responsibility to protect its citizens, has to step in and restrict freedoms to combat a global pandemic.
At the start of the health crisis, while countries around the Netherlands were eyeing the situation in Italy, locking down and coming to a standstill, the Dutch government waited several weeks before taking similar measures, postponing a severe economic downturn for as long as they could get away with it.
Health experts advising the government claimed face masks had little to no effect. What would be more pressing was social distancing, washing your hands and staying home when feeling sick. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) explained that "the literature does not offer a clear consensus on the effect of wearing non-medical face masks in public spaces". So were the Dutch so fixated on published research that they disregarded a simple measure? Or was it a cost saving move, not having to import dozens of millions of masks? At the end of the day the conclusion was that if everyone were the follow the basic rules face masks were not needed.
Nevertheless, passengers on public transport were advised to wear them, whereas in supermarkets there was no need. This all created a very fragmented picture of what should actually be done. The world was masking up, but the Netherlands was not. And so the pictures showed: People waiting in line for a coronavirus test, shoppers at supermarket check-out queues and concert-goers, with none of them wearing masks.
During the pandemic: Justice minister controversy
Not sticking to the basic rules could result in hefty fines and an entry into your criminal record (even for failing to maintain social distance). In weekly press conferences, the government hammered on about the need to follow these basic rules and not crop up as one of those "antisocial individuals" by not taking the virus seriously, said the country's Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus. Little did it help, then, that this summer the man himself was photographed hugging his mother-in-law at his own wedding party.
The photos went viral and Grapperhaus was put on the spot. Can a justice minister have a criminal record? Grapperhaus didn't get one. So why should a regular citizen be punished, and a minister of justice not? Is he above the law? All in all, it was an embarrassment and a PR blunder for the man and the government.
Grapperhaus has since apologised and donated his fine to the Red Cross, and he also scrapped the criminal record entries for everyone not following basic rules. This story has had a big impact on the trustworthiness and message of the government.
But still: no face masks. Dutch authorities were worried that they would lead to 'risk compensation', where other measures to combat the virus, such as social distancing, are ignored in return for wearing the mask.
Dutch Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus /
September & October: Face masks "strongly advised"
In October, the Netherlands counted more than 250 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest infection rates in Europe. While this time the average age of positive cases was in the 20s and 30s and therefore there was less strain on ICUs, the sudden surge remained alarming.
Restrictive measures were once again slow to come and always a step behind the virus, it seemed, but the government was confident it was a step ahead. "What about face masks?" a reporter at the press conference asked. "I strongly advise you to wear them," said the Prime Minister. "What does that mean? Why not just make them compulsory?" the reporter would follow up: "Why not just DO it?" And then there was silence.
The problem is that compulsory wearing of face masks cannot be enshrined in law and clashes with a person's constitutional rights. As Lauren Comiteau writes in an excellent investigation, the fact that Dutch politicians have failed to take the lead in this health crisis means shops and stores on the ground end up having to take their own measures. Large supermarket and shopping chains now oblige customers to wear masks if they want to enter their stores. But this has created a very fragmented coronavirus policy, even leading to violent situations, where fights erupt after a staff member kindly reminds a customer to mask up.
But many people still believe face masks are utterly pointless, arguing that in countries where they are obligatory numbers are sharply rising, too. Something along the lines of "the government can't force me to cover my mouth" and myths that "face masks reduce your oxygen" (a theory which has been busted countless times) still float around - and are believed by a large group. My colleague Martin Jonsson wrote a great piece on this, explaining the pandemic and its relation to the media and fake news. Multiple mass demonstrations in the Hague against further measures at the start of the pandemic ended up being superspreader events.
But that does not mean one cannot simply mask up voluntarily, and slowly this is happening. Now, you're being scorned for not wearing a mask in the supermarket, a complete U-turn in the situation within two weeks. For things to change however, the public must feel that their sacrifices are for the greater good. And at the moment the government is having serious troubles showing what is needed.