Origin, outbreak and societal aftermath of pandemics were not deeply ingrained in our collective memory and rock our civilization on its very foundations. This lack of public awareness and adequate policy response is understandable given that the most recent large pandemic occurred over 100 years ago. Some people break the rules of hygiene to prevent infection intentionally, but most of us, including Ferdinand Grapperhaus, you and me do so unintentionally. This is only human and forgivable. But below Martin de Jong explains why with a second wave of infections and hospitalizations taking off, otherwise forgivable ignorance, carelessness and lack of determination may have become unforgivable. Why should our doctors, nurses and teachers risk their own health and security for us again if there are more comfortable and lucrative options for them in the market?
My own little Grapperhaus gaffe
After seeing my children off at the local primary school, I ended up having a chat with the school director about the conditions in which he and his squad of teachers now have to operate. He admitted that it was not an easy situation. School teachers had already been in short supply for several years as a result of low pay, low status and high levels of work pressure, and the complications surrounding COVID-19 had come on top of all that. The arrival of Autumn 2020, on the eve of COVID’s second European wave during which, once again, the Netherlands had not proven to be the best kid in class when it came to handling rising numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, made his situation particularly thorny. If any of his teachers had the slightest runny nose, dry cough or any other possible symptom, they were not just entitled but even required to be tested and stay at home for a few days. This led to frequent but unsystematic fall-out of teachers and classes upon which given his duty of care the director had to immediately act, with his cellphone open and his mind permanently in a wakeful state. If there was any topic he and his younger fellow primary school directors agreed on, it was perhaps that there had to be less stressful and more lucrative jobs out there in the market for them in the near future. My proposal to help out by reading morning stories for young children or to lecture in playful ways on politics, geography or culture for those in higher grades moved him. After we had given each other a spontaneous hug, we realized we had broken several rules of hygiene, including the required social distancing. We looked around. Luckily, the anti-corona police watchdogs were nowhere to be seen, unlike in previous days. We sighed in relief, realizing we should be safe after all (in one sense of the word, not in another) and conveniently overlooked the possible presence of any sleazy boulevard press photographer catching us live during our little Grapperhaus gaffe.
Grapperhaus’ little Grapperhaus gaffe
Ferdinand Grapperhaus, current Dutch Minister of Justice and Security, has for a while used firm language against young breakers of the law. He worked hard himself, gave the anti-corona watchdogs the tough job of enforcing the measures he had enacted, taught both the Dutch population (and, as evidenced in a charming interview, also his family members) new words for June and July (‘juno’ and ‘julij’ for the sake of clearer distinction from ‘juni’ and ‘juli’) and finally deserved and obtained his ultimate day of relaxation, elation and exhilaration: his own wedding. I need not digress on the potential for weddings – including his own – to offer opportunities to break various rules of social distancing. It is not difficult to understand that hugs from aunts and mothers-in-law cannot and should not be refused in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately for him, some dubious second rank journalist had woken up very early that morning, ventured his luck with a camera and managed to shoot various compromising pictures of the proceedings. These were diligently leaked in daily cohorts to newspapers, to maximize both the damage to Grapperhaus’ reputation and the journalist’s private gain. The following day Holland held its breath while Belgium’s super virologist Steven Van Gucht boldly announced that in his country no responsible minister would ever escape severe penalty after such a blunder. Somehow Flemish experts always raise their hands first to volunteer in uttering harsh public criticism when a mishap occurs in the Netherlands. That night in the Dutch Parliament, however, humanity and clemency prevailed during multiple hours of intense political questioning. Grapperhaus himself apologized profusely for his unlawful moments of passion. He visibly struggled when pushed to explain how his own civil servants could from now on be expected to convince the common people, especially critical or annoyed ones, to follow the rules when their boss flaunted those very same rules he had introduced and fiercely promoted. At one point Grapperhaus lost control over his emotions. His voice broke and his words touched the audience of a full Second Chamber of Parliament when he moaned out loud how, in retrospect, he wished he had invited no guests at all and celebrated his moment of matrimony with just his partner. Had none of his political advisors anticipated the likelihood of such an event being derailed? Had nobody warned him that wedding halls in times of corona can be ill-fated legendary joke houses that may stick to a minister’s name forever? Paradoxically, it was that lucky instant of his psychological breakdown that ushered in his political victory. Few in the audience could resist genuine tears. His political survival was subsequently secured by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Team-player Mark stood firmly for the members of his own cabinet and utilized a mix of psychological conviction, authentic sympathy and rhetorical skill to keep his colleague and friend in office. Grapperhaus paid the 390 Euro fine for his offence like a true gentleman, and everybody was able to get on with their lives. All’s well that ends well?
Empty pages in our collective memory
It has been long, very long, since most people in the developed world experienced a true pandemic. While the outbreaks of SARS, MERS and Ebola as epidemics were eventually contained, affecting a limited number of nations and mainly causing mayhem there, the last true global pandemic was the Spanish flu of more than 100 years ago. You, me, Ferdinand Grapperhaus and all other minor criminals shall all be forgiven for not being able to reproduce a timely and accurate account of medical history, draw meaningful lessons from it, react to threats on time with well-proportioned measures and behave according to the rules of the game. Nonetheless, SARS, MERS and Ebola should have activated our interest in and awareness of what was known of the short- and long-term consequences of epidemics, but they did not. More recently, our very own COVID-19 should have pushed us and our leadership to do the very same, but so far it has not done so either. And yet the empirical evidence is widespread and readily available. History is great men and women. History is politics and economics. History is influential ideas, religion and philosophy. History is war. But it is also the damage and pain inflicted through epidemics.
Have we forgotten how the Western Roman Empire fell into decline? Do we remember what made life in early industrializing cities practically unlivable for workers sleeping in dirty collective dwellings? Has the issue of public health and its fragility been downplayed too much in our textbooks and collective memory, with the exception of some awful and unreal faraway shadow of Europe’s medieval Black Death? Small pandemics rock civilizations, large pandemics wreck them, and series of large pandemics ravage them absolutely. Luckily there is Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society to help refresh our memory and recognize historical patterns in the evolution of large-scale epidemics.
Patterns in past pain
As mentioned, it has been long since we last experienced a pandemic on this scale, and this left most people anno 2020 unprepared and anxious, including our politicians. They reacted late, which is forgivable and far from unique, but it is consequential. In fact, virtually all of the things we have witnessed around us in the past few months can be retraced in written accounts of various epidemics that occurred in the past. They are therefore less unknowable and unpredictable as one might think. Each time an initial paralysis and massive public anxiety emerged, coupled with a frantic search for functional fixes or medication. We are likely to observe a rise in unfounded rumor and gossip. This is followed by the dissemination of false news and conspiracy theories with higher than usual impact which, in turn, add further fuel to anxiety and distrust. The root of the infection is often believed to lie with foreigners and strangers, and especially less informed and deprived segments of the population often discriminate against ‘them’. Authorities feel compelled to navigate between interests of public health and vital economic stakeholders, and whatever choice they make there is never a correct, optimal or virtuous one. Meanwhile, those in strongly affected areas attack the authorities and their officials as profound suspicion is rife – even if these authorities act with the best of intentions. There may be short-lived and shallow support for caregivers and frontline staff but their sometimes truly heroic deeds tend to be forgotten remarkably quickly, and eventually this makes way for vocal public leaders who remained silent when the going got rough but rise high when the times were right to claim fame. And finally, some experts realize and proclaim that humanity’s role in destroying animal habitat is the obvious source of the intimate contact between germ-carrying animals made homeless, and humans susceptible to novel types of infections.
Unfortunately, action to stop this process is not taken – a forgivable but fatal mistake. As a result, early hopes that the global health crisis might change something for the better and a brave new world may shine at the end of the tunnel are dashed and replaced with a gradual strengthening of people’s ultra-conservative yearning for a return to the very same normal state of affairs they had known before. It is the understandable and totally forgivable desire to live without any change and presumably an excited leap back into the bad old days they used to know. They end up getting what they hope for – but not quite. When epidemics break out, leaders show their strength by declaring war against the new invisible enemy, but these are not real wars. In the aftermath of war brothers and sisters normally feel encouraged to take each other by the hand in solidarity and rebuild society. Epidemics lead them to reject each other’s hands for fear of filth and bacteria. The rich do not get richer, but the poor do get poorer. Life eventually comes back as once it was known, just less shiny than before and more vulnerable to the next crisis which may undercut society’s tarnished tissue even harder. If only we had known…
Why the forgivable is unforgivable
Seen in context, even though it seems to be shaking modern civilization at its very foundations COVID-19 with 1 million fatalities so far is actually only a tiny fish. It appears to possess medium infectivity and a comparatively low death rate centered primarily around people of higher age and weaker health. Antibiotics cannot treat it and while roughshod measures invented in times of the plague such as lockdowns, cordon sanitaires, social distancing, preventing large public events and facemasks come in their place, preparations are made for a working vaccine. And yet, we can already observe just half a year into the crisis what it has done to our economic and psychological resilience. Soon the battle against global poverty will have to start from scratch again. When the pain and stress in hospitals and care institutions were made visible, there was a window of opportunity to reflect and reconsider the value of various priorities in life. When primary and secondary schools reopened sooner than most other public offices and freed us from looking after our children while we were working, we and our leaders might have seen this as a great opportunity to express gratitude to the providers of education. Both groups would have welcomed, and more importantly needed, better protection and lower work pressure. A round of applause as a reward for hard work is appreciated, but what is it worth if the best part of the money is reserved for saving large airlines and all kinds of entrepreneurs, with the strong large corporations taking a disproportionately large share? What is it worth if the collective behavior of our population and the interventions of our government have brought us to the brink of a second wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths for which we are barely better prepared than we were for the first wave? What shall we tell our care providers this time?
It is certainly forgivable to show humanity and clemency to ourselves for our failure to learn from history, for setting our priorities wrong and for making the same petty mistakes as good old Grapperhaus, you and me in social distancing. After all, we are human. But so are doctors, nurses and teachers. Give them a big hug and tell them we will not miss this opportunity. Or else they may not forgive us and may have found employment elsewhere by the time we need them the most. The forgivable is just not good enough this time.