In preparing for the listening portion of the national Dutch language proficiency exam (Staatsexamens Nt2) I began watching past episodes of various Dutch programs, including the Friday evening program ‘Gesprek met de minister-president’. In this ten-minute program, NOS, the largest Dutch news organization, hosts a one-on-one discussion between Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and a leading journalist. In the beginning it was challenging to follow, but with the help of subtitles (special shout-out to the accessibility team at NOS and everywhere!), I’m grasping more and more. As I’m watching and listening, I’m coming to realize two things. One, Dutch journalists have a very different style of interviewing than the Tom Brokaw/Dan Rather/Peter Jennings interviews I am accustomed to! And two, that Mark Rutte is a remarkable national and world leader.
As I searched back to past episodes to find a place to start, I figured early March was a good time to start. That’s when – as we all know – the corona outbreak really started in the Netherlands and when interviews and press conferences from leaders became vital for everyone the world. That’s when we watched in shock at the explosion of infections and deaths in the Italian Lombardy region and when we saw residents of Wuhan being able to leave their apartments after a nearly two-month lockdown. And that’s when we saw Mark Rutte step up to task of leading the nation through the most sudden and impactful crisis the world has seen in centuries. Since this time, Mr. Rutte has not wavered from his, as he said on 20 March, “cool mind and warm heart”. Over the next several episodes I saw the prime minister display one of the strongest examples of leadership that we’ve seen during this crisis, founded in integrity and facts.
From the start, Rutte and the other faces of the Dutch corona team (ministers Hugo de Jonge and Marcel van Rijn, as well as Jaap van Dissel, head of the national public health service) have repeated the call for everyone to remain 1.5 meters distance, stay home as much as possible (now relaxed to ‘avoid busy places’) and stay home if you have symptoms. These three measures have been repeated so many times in each episode, I’m sure if the exam asks me to answer in Dutch “What are the three main corona measures introduced by the government?”, I know I’ll answer that question 100% correctly! But in all seriousness, Rutte repeated these measures to almost every question asked. He did so steadfastly and calmly. Even as the virus spread, hospital admissions grew exponentially, the nation grieved for those who had passed and watched the healthcare workers deal with unthinkable situations … Mr Rutte never wavered from being the cool-headed and warm-hearted leader any nation would want in this crisis.
Though it may sound like I think Mark Rutte can do no wrong, I know he can – and has – done some things in his three terms as Prime Minister that aren’t perfect. A quick search on the internet and in The Holland Times will reveal many controversial viewpoints, problematic issues and even scandals that have followed Rutte and his party, the VVD. But in this unprecedented crisis, where this is no playbook or example of how a modern society should respond, there have been very few missteps from the government. What there has been is factual information shared with the nation that, as Rutte said several times, was backed up by at least two credible scientific sources and delivered in a timely, honest and calm manner.
In this American’s opinion, the Netherlands is fortunate to have Rutte at the helm during this global health crisis. He has led by example (except for one early slip-up where he offered his hand for a handshake with Mr Van Dissel) and hasn’t wasted time by sharing his personal opinions or been distracted by irrelevant issues. His general approach to the corona crisis hasn’t been influenced by thoughts about his party’s results in the upcoming national elections in March.
What surprises me, though, is how many Dutch people (and presumably people in other nations, but I can only speak from my immediate surroundings) are relaxing in their adherence to the three main corona measures. Rutte said on 20 March that the next few weeks would be very tense, but that the months afterwards would be as well. Though the number of infections is a fraction of what they were at the peak, things haven’t become less tense. As Rutte said dozens of times: remain 1.5 meters away from each other, avoid busy places and stay at home if you have symptoms. Please, everyone, continue to do this.
Written by Marla Thomson