The Dutch take a gamble with corona

As the corona epidemic is sweeping the world, each affected country deals with the onslaught in its own way. Rather than coordinating and taking measures collectively, the world’s nations are taking specific measures geared towards each one’s specific political culture and health system. The same goes for the Netherlands, which has drawn a lot of criticism for its approach to tackle the corona virus.

There is now almost no nation that has not been affected by the corona virus, officially known as COVID-19. And although most countries tackle the virus somewhat differently, all follow a similar trajectory of initial hesitation, followed by panic and then a partial or full lockdown of society. China, where the virus originated, completely shut off the Hubei region and the epicenter Wuhan from the outside world, but not after it dithered during the first month. Italy too, which has now become the European epicenter of the corona pandemic, has gone in full lockdown mode, after the Italian government initially dragged its feet. The same goes for the UK and the US, the latter of which currently has the most infections worldwide; whereas Germany and France chose to impose self-quarantine rather quickly.

All nations struck down
The balance that most countries are seeking is between the opposing forces of health concerns and the economy. If a population is allowed to freely move around, too many people get sick and overwhelm the hospitals, which can leave many people left untreated with fatal consequences. If on the other hand the population goes in full lockdown for an extended period of time, productivity nosedives as the economy comes to a screeching halt. The fact that still so much remains unknown about the virus only adds to people’s insecurity, both physically and financially.

Countries that have swiftly responded to the health crisis include South Korea, Singapore and Germany, which began testing their populations for the virus almost immediately. Israel created contact tracing software which allowed it to monitor patients’ whereabouts and their contacts. Australia was the first advanced economy which called COVID-19 a pandemic, even before the World Health Organization (WHO) did, which allowed it to quickly release emergency funding and tax breaks, and bought precious time for its hospitals to prepare for a potential flood of patients.

All countries have closed their schools, universities and other non-essential government services, as well as museums, cinemas, gyms, swimming pools and nightclubs. Commercial travel is now almost nonexistent as countries have restricted movement across their borders.

The Dutch approach
The Netherlands has formulated its own approach to the corona crisis. In reality, there is not that much difference between the Dutch government’s policies and those of other European countries, with all the measures taken to curb social contacts. The current measures in the Netherlands, as in countries that are in full lockdown, are aimed at capping the peak in corona infections and slowing down the pandemic.

Most public places were shut down fairly soon, and all events were cancelled. The public was initially allowed to keep moving about relatively freely. Only after complaints came in that too many people were visiting markets and beaches, the government instituted clearer rules on social distancing, with fines issued if too many people come together.

However, at the time of writing the Dutch are still enjoying some freedom to move around. The idea behind the Dutch approach is that a total lockdown is merely a stay of execution. One can attempt to slow down the number of infections, but in the end the virus will strike anyway. It might as well happen in phases, flattening the curves of multiple peak periods, so that the healthcare system is not overburdened. Therefore, public life is allowed to continue, but in a much more restricted way than before. People can still go out, provided they leave at least 1,5 meters distance between two people; kids under 12 can play outside in groups, and many non-essential businesses remain open.

A possible side effect of this may be the creation of ‘herd’ (group) immunity, i.e. to allow the coronavirus to circulate in a somewhat controlled way among the population, as a result of which, over time, many people will be immune and the spread will stagnate. The main criticism to this is that the herd immunity hypothesis is still scientifically unproven, since the virus hasn’t circulated among the world’s population long enough to know what it’s doing in terms of immunity. However, too many COVID-19 patients at the same time would overwhelm the healthcare system, and thus the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course, as the Dutch government clearly recognizes.

Test, test, test
Another point of criticism is that the Netherlands has not been testing its citizens as much as other countries have. Of those people that have flu symptoms, only those from ‘risk groups’ (the elderly and people with chronic diseases) are currently tested for COVID-19, whereas younger and healthier people are sent back home. As a result, Dutch statistics about corona are fundamentally flawed. However, this is not a result of the government policy, but caused by a serious shortage of test kits.

A full lockdown saves time to develop a vaccine. On the other hand, a country cannot be locked down forever. The Dutch have taken a gamble with their ‘light’ lockdown, trying to save at least some of the economy while minimizing the number of fatalities. Only hindsight will tell if the gamble has paid off.


Edition 10 April, by Johannes Visser