COVID-19 is not over yet. The onset of the epidemic has confronted both foreigners and Dutch with a number of peculiar features of Holland’s public administration, policy-making, diplomacy and democratic process. In this provocative piece, parallels will be drawn between the handling of the corona virus now and that of the way the plague was dealt with a few centuries ago. What emerges is a set of cultural explanations of how Holland can shock the world and what the image of an annoying schoolkid has to do with this.
Besieged from all sides
There has been much ado in the past few weeks about the attitude and actions of the Dutch government vis-à-vis its own citizens and its European partners, before and during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe. Heavy criticism has been fired at the government from a great number of important and respectable players. It began with amazement and indignation on the part of Dutch journalists and reporters living in Asia and foreign residents living in The Netherlands: they had mentioned so many times that this virus was not a hoax. They had seen Wuhan, Milan and Qom; they knew what was coming and had warned repeatedly. Why had all these signals been ignored or brushed aside in an off-hand manner for weeks, until infection and death rates spiraled out of control? Was damage control the only thing politicians and bureaucrats in The Hague had to offer, after staying passive for many weeks? Then came Flemish mayors living just across the border: why did the Dutch government decide not to close markets, bar terraces and fairs, or leave it up to municipalities to take unpopular measures? Was it always necessary to annoy others and deviate from common European policies (and especially Belgian ones, obviously), and avoid opting for a firm lockdown as most neighbors did? Now all irreverent and unruly Flemish youth could easily cross the border and find their exuberant fun in Maastricht and Hulst rather than at home and flout any responsibility. This anger and disdain were followed by scathing attacks by the Irish Times and the BBC: by adopting and never officially revoking the heartless ‘Herd Immunity’ theory, the Dutch government risked promoting the infection and untimely death of huge numbers of its citizens. Immunity was not certain to evolve for a variety of scientific reasons, let alone mass group immunity for the benefit of all. Even if it did, the ‘Flattening the Curve’ theory had it that Intensive Care Units and the staff and equipment involved would long be overburdened before those benefits could ever appear. Last but not least, there was the enormous political clash between The Netherlands and Italy in establishing a financial support package for the ailing economies in Southern Europe after the coronavirus had been evicted. How could Dutch Finance Minister and frozen accountant Wopke Hoekstra raise the issue of (the lack of) sound bookkeeping in Italy, Spain and Portugal at exactly the moment when the crisis was so serious that crematories and cemeteries had insufficient capacity to handle the numbers of fatalities? Did he not know, even if from his own national context, that lives matter more than money and that economies had to be saved from devastation? Or did he believe he could sell his flower bulbs elsewhere in the world after Mediterranean Europe had fallen apart?
An annoying schoolkid now
Before making a reasoned assessment of what I think ‘is wrong with Holland’, I should confess how I have, implicitly or explicitly, already for many years looked at my own country the Netherlands (of which the Holland provinces are the dominant and most vocal representatives). Imagine that secondary schoolboy in your class, not unkind and not untrustworthy, and actually reasonably likeable. He has two fatal flaws, however: you are never invited to his home and if you are, the pastry accompanying the coffee invariably disappoints. But most importantly, what makes him positively unbearable is that he regularly obtains 7 out of 10 marks for most of his subjects, but behaves as if his GPA was 9/10 and never fails to tell others what he thinks the right answer is. The name of that kid is ‘Holland’.
Unfortunately, I could not help seeing all parts of my own intuitive stereotype amplified during the latest pandemic. The Netherlands reacted rather late and half-heartedly to the crisis. Its Prime Minister Mark Rutte spoke of ‘containing it’ until it became obvious that herd immunity was indeed almost the only ‘policy solution’ left to choose. He eventually adopted a light version of measures embraced by its neighbors several days earlier, and decided to call it an ‘intelligent lockdown’, because Dutch citizens are smart(er?) and (more?) sophisticated, and can handle the same level of behavioral rigor as their neighbors with fewer and softer government interventions. This belated but acclaimed public announcement, along with the sun-clad beaches and marketplaces left free to visit on Saturdays for all Dutch who previously had believed COVID was an exotic Chinese flu, definitively earned him the reputation of a national statesman. 73% of the populace stood in awe of the demonstrated governance abilities and leadership qualities. Although democracy never has been and never will be a verdict of accuracy, adequacy or truth, its impact is profound. Whenever on LinkedIn foreigners in the Netherlands or Dutch abroad raised thorny questions about the effectiveness of the adopted policies, the veracity and reliability of the published infection and death rates (in fact, highly unreliable due to limited testing and exclusion of many ill and deceased never admitted to a hospital), or the treatment of elderly people (lower priority in being allocated scarce treatment), national proponents of the adopted policy reacted as if stung by an adder. Who were these disloyal individuals, failing to stand behind their enlightened leadership in these crucial times of crisis? How the hell could they know South Korean, Taiwanese or other Asian policies were more effective than European, especially Dutch ones? It was, has been and always will be inconceivable that anybody would outperform this unbeatable and unbearable bespectacled whipster. To verify this provocative hypothesis, I decided to consult some authoritative books on how the Dutch government handled the threat of the plague in the 16th – 18th centuries when it was still a Republic, rather than a Kingdom. I assumed that this might help.
An annoying schoolkid then
Were I now asked if there is such a thing as an essential, universal and timeless phenomenon called ‘Hollandness’, my reply would be “yes and no”. Let me start by saying I was struck by the discovery that in those days, the set of typical policy measures adopted by cities and nations against the Black Death were virtually identical to those proposed and deployed now: cordons, quarantines, separate homes for the badly infected, social distancing, closing large events and buildings, and blocking entry for passengers and contaminated freight (by road, sea or river at the time). What was different, at least in the Dutch context, was that cities rather than the States-General were responsible for combating the invisible enemy. That stood in stark contrast with all its neighbors, including the Southern Netherlands (current Belgium and a strip in Northern France) which all had policies adopted and imposed at the central level. In those days, it was Southern Europe where new trends tended to hit first, and this was no different in the case of handling massive plague infections. The whole panoply of aforementioned health measures was in place in Venice, Genova, Naples, Spain and France, and from there waved northwards to civilize the rest of Europe. Cities in the Netherlands, especially in the early days, were downright reluctant to admit even the presence of the disease in their midst. They went to great lengths to convince their international trading partners that rumors of scary infections or contaminated clothing ware were false and treacherous, only to protect their short-term business interests. So much for honesty and directness. In their choice of policy measures, efficiency ruled over effectiveness: health measures were imposed in fragmented, haphazard, incomplete and frugal ways. World-renowned Italian-style lazarettos for victims of the plague (large stylish buildings wherein they could be isolated) were never built. The vast majority of regents awarded a preference to economic and business interests over health considerations and many of were not impervious to the clamor of large segments of the population favoring fatalist and fundamentalist followers of the Swiss theologist Jean Calvin (ignominious ‘thinkers’ such as Voetius and Oomius whom I am grateful to never have met in the dark).In these specifically Dutch interpretation of Calvin’s work, emphatic pleas were made for considering the miasmas held responsible for the Black Death a rightful punishment sent from God, for which seeking refuge was unjustified. Where was the scientific approach to diseases as promoted by the ‘contagionists’, or the humanist conception that life prevails over money? The latter humanitarian failure was painfully visible in that the Dutch Republic was the only nation in Europe to send its own infected seamen back to the seas in their ships to die there, rather than hosting them somewhere on land in designated buildings.
The long-term, however, was better kept in view. Over time, grand pensionaries and stadholders realized their playful handling of the truth in matters of plague and trade led to a loss in confidence from other European nations and chose to change course. They incrementally adopted approaches and measures which had been common elsewhere, selectively copying pieces of legislation from the Italian vanguard and eventually regaining credibility for their nation. Liberal types surreptitiously accepted contagionist rather than miasmatic tenets and pushed these through. And although (or because?) financial criteria continue to be ranked highest among the full set of public values, God decided to reward the Dutch for their thoughtful frugalism and never sent the Black Death to trouble them again. The fact that under French occupation, the Dutch law-giver had a final chance to show its humane face and adopt French-inspired legislation allowing ‘plagued sailors’ treatment on land rather than certain death at sea and rejected it once again, was thus only for the records. God can truly not be expected to see everything.
Handling the Mediterranean financial virus
As we all know only too well, snake-pit Europe still exists and anno 2020 Holland had to face its challenges once again. They must have realized somehow that the notorious valiance that bought them (partial) victory over Philip II and his overly stringent Catholic forces during the 80 Years war (during which the first plague outbreaks occurred in The Netherlands) was a constant in their history. The Spaniards had learned their lesson the hard way and were beaten in battle by, and had succumbed to, the Spirit of Calvinist fanaticism. The Dutch bookkeepers must have thought “Who’s next?” and were determined to defeat their Italian brethren head-on in battle too. Perhaps by mentioning ‘The war! The war!’ and making emotional demands for pan-European solidarity, Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese and other great EU spenders could blackmail fragile German bankers into submission when it came to claims on European funding. But that trick certainly could not be used successfully against the Dutch, who have always sincerely believed in their own righteousness and innocence. Posting, as the Italians indeed tried, an open letter in German newspapers that suggested any two or more of the North European banking nations could ever be on the wrong side of history should they not give in to Mediterranean demands would simply be the best joke ever. Those wasteful and corrupt Southerners should come up with something better next time, if they wished to win financial battles. As a consequence of this rather classical monetary stricture cloaked in a novel and bold admonishing fashion, the Dutch team had a decisive influence on the very reasonable financial package eventually agreed upon. But it also flabbergasted friends and enemies alike in the severity of its language and the perseverance of its bargaining, even if temporarily unsupported by its much larger and more powerful Eastern brother and traditional ally.
Holland, you left Europe shocked in handling the financial plague. Your famous and perennial directness is well-known, but you may or may not realize that it is only admired when accompanied by truth, honesty and humanity. Much of the world does not really know you. Only your immediate neighbors Flanders and Germany do. They know your strengths and weaknesses and can or cannot deal with them. Flanders resents you for being condescending, unruly and uncivilized. It is always eager to chastise you, even if its performance in handling the corona virus is at least not superior to yours and probably even worse. Germany appreciates you for being loyal, reasonably professional yet loose. It willingly helps you by making ICU beds available to your ailing casualties and makes no complaints even though its performance is distinctly superior to yours. Both neighbors have accurate judgement of who and how you are.
The hard truth, Holland, is that you are massively overrated. You are direct, so you can handle hearing this: you are not as honest and humane as you think. In truth you are very special, but in a different way than you believe. You have a remarkable naïveté and an almost fanatic courage. You do not hide behind the backs of others when difficult messages need to be brought forward: Europe is united enough for member states to help each other with battling plague and coronavirus and sharing the medical expenses. It is not unified enough to carry each other’s historically evolved economic burdens, so the introduction of Eurobonds would have both destabilized Europe further and potentially have led to uncontrolled borrowing. This is simply a reality that even in times of severe crisis should be looked straight in the eye, and you had the guts to put that bluntly on the table. You did so mostly alone, and that was an act of valiance. Had you defeated Italy and its Mediterranean allies with honesty, empathy and sensible diplomacy, you would have been admired by the rest of Europe for a long time to come – even if grudgingly by some. Instead, your actions around a potentially noble standpoint were marred by narrow selfishness, lack of tact and insensitivity. This time around, the Germans were on the right side of history. All that is left for you to do, Holland, is hide in a corner like a child just admonished and repent your sins.
Calvin, do your thing!