Looking back at the Netherlands after Covid-19

What will the Netherlands, and the world at large, look like ‘post-corona’? Will it be business as usual, out-of-business or business 2.0? In what ways will we move differently and which of our habits instead are dying hard? Though it’s hard to predict, it’s fun to explore.

Thinking about the future is difficult for a few reasons. First, because the future is inherently unknowable. Secondly, there is fear of the unknown in most of us, where we tend to think only about the bad stuff that could happen and not about our lucky breaks. Connected to this is how we look at our immediate problems from the perspective of how things have always been, not imagining the ingenious ways that we humans have always found ways to solve our problems, in very much unexpected ways.

Imagining a future past
But instead of trying to foresee future events, perhaps it’s more useful to imagine a day in the future, where we look back at the past, the period we live in now. Imagine for example a warm afternoon in September, enjoying a cold beer or a glass of wine in a crowded bar. Perhaps you smile and wonder why it took so long for cash to completely disappear from public use, although we were able to pay by card or phone long before the crisis began. Maybe the people you mingle with at the Friday afternoon drinks are not your colleagues, but those from the other companies that you share co-working space with. And of course, you are surprised no more at seeing your boss in sweatpants changing her baby’s diapers during a video conference meeting earlier that day, as opposed to her usual, pre-corona suit pants.

Social distancing might have become the norm during the time leading up to that September day, but instead of being isolated, you feel closer than ever to a small circle of family and friends. Meaningful conversation has replaced idle chatter as the world slowed down. You might ask yourself why before the crisis you were always frantically trying to get stuff done but never really felt satisfied about it. Or why you never took those long and slow walks that by now you enjoy so much.

System reset or society transformed?
There are the conventional ways of looking at the future. It goes something like this: after months of social lockdowns, where the government bailed out many if not most businesses, the economy has nosedived. The Netherlands as an open economy will be hit particularly hard: Rabobank economists predict an unprecedented 14% contraction of gross national production for 2020, if the lockdown is in place until the end of August. All sectors will be affected and it may take years for businesses and the government to recover financially.

On the other hand, there are proposals to not return to business as usual, but to radically transform the economy. A group of 170 Dutch scientists, mostly sociologists and environmental scientists, has published a manifest calling for a radical reorganization of society. Their proposals include higher investments in the public sector, clean energy, education and care, shorter working weeks and a basic income for all. Furthermore, they say we ought to transition to circular agriculture and a reduction in consumption and travel, in order to lighten our carbon footprint. Last but not least, the manifesto calls for all debts owed by employees, self-employed persons and developing countries to be written off completely.

Never waste a good crisis
Beyond the Dutch borders too, many commentators and policy makers are calling out for a new world. The European Union is set to implement a one trillion euro Green Deal, aside from the three trillion euro package of financial ‘anti-corona instruments’ the European Central Bank proposed on 30 April.

But slushing around a lot of money to save an economy based solely on value exchange and consumption will not remedy the underlying problems that caused the world’s unpreparedness for this pandemic in the first place. One environmental economist writing for the BBC argues that the best-paid jobs currently are those that only exist to facilitate exchanges, like consultancy, advertising and finance, but serve no wider purpose to society. On the other hand, most essential services in society, such as healthcare, social care, food production and distribution are grossly undervalued due to budget cuts and efficiency optimization. For a real transformation then, we will need to have a good look at the things that really matter to us.

Perhaps, on that warm September afternoon, those things will be considered useful, valuable and a no-brainer that are essential to life and improving the quality of life, as opposed to just making money.

Written by Johannes Visser