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Europe Versus Coronavirus - The "Intelligent Lockdown" Gamble of the Netherlands

BLOG - 13 May 2020
Key Points
1

An analysis of Covid-19 in the Netherlands and the Dutch authorities’ response can be a useful contribution to a comparative analysis of the current economic and health crisis.

2

As the European Union’s fifth-largest economy and the world’s fifth-largest exporter of goods, this "big small country", one of the most densely-populated and open in the world, had many points in common with its neighbors at the start of the epidemic. Similarly, many of the decisions taken since last March are comparable to those taken elsewhere, but are presented in the original framework of an "intelligent lockdown".

3

The results, observed at a time when this multifaceted crisis enters a new phase with the easing of measures, reflect strong specificities. While the health outcomes are mediocre, public support for government policy - which has both conjunctural and structural dimensions - is strong, even if questions about the chosen strategy started to multiply in early May.

Timeline

  • March 6: First Covid-19-related death, in the province North Brabant.
  • March 12: Five deaths. The government announces the first set of measures: working from home is encouraged and a ban is placed on both gatherings of over 100 people and visits to vulnerable persons.
  • March 15: Twenty deaths. Educational institutions, bars, restaurants, cafés and coffee shops are closed, among others.
  • March 16: The Prime Minister raises the concept of "herd immunity" in an address to the nation.
  • March 17: The government announces economic relief measures: tax deferrals, partial unemployment, public guarantees on bank loans, allowances for self-employed persons.
  • March 20: First speech by king Willem-Alexander.
  • March 23: 213 deaths. The measures in place are tightened:
    • Gatherings are banned until June 1, 2020 (instead of April 1), with the exception of funerals. The ban now also applies to gatherings of under 100 participants.
    • In stores and public transportation, measures are put in place to ensure people keep a distance of 1.5 meters.
    • Vacation parks (vakantieparken) need to ensure visitors keep a distance of 1.5 meters. Where this is not possible, municipalities are allowed to close the parks.
    • Mayors have the possibility to ban crowds in certain areas, including parks, beaches and neighborhoods.
    • Hairdressers, beauticians and other so-called "contact professions" in the beauty sector must suspend their activities until April 6. Physical therapists are required to offer teleconsultations wherever possible.
    • People with a cough and/or cold, even if mild, have to stay at home. If someone has a fever, everyone in their household has to self-quarantine.
    • Group outings are not allowed. Inside homes, visits are limited to three people at a time, and social distancing measures need to be respected.
  • Late March to early April: Peak of the epidemic.
  • March 31: 1,039 deaths. The measures in place are extended until April 28.
  • From April 10 onward: The number of daily deaths decreases.
  • April 21: 3,916 deaths. Most measures are extended until May 19; major gatherings are banned until September 1; and the soccer season is canceled. However, the lockdown is loosened for children, adolescents and athletes. The government announces that primary schools are set to reopen gradually from May 11 and high schools from June 2.
  • April 27: On the occasion of King’s Day, a national holiday, king Willem-Alexander addresses the nation a second time.
  • April 30: 4,795 deaths. The number of daily deaths has been halved over the course of three weeks.
  • May 6: 5,204 deaths. The government announces a "roadmap" until September 1 for an end to the lockdown. The new guiding principle is "stay at home in case of symptoms and avoid crowds". The reopening of stores and public spaces is accelerated: May 11 for hairdressers and driving schools; June 1 for bars, cafés, restaurants and cinemas (within a limit of 30 customers at a time); July 1 for higher education, campsites and vacation parks; and - conditionally - September 1 for major sports events, saunas and sex workers. Masks are made compulsory in public transportation.

Analysis

At the start of the epidemic, the "clinical picture" in the Netherlands was similar to that of its northern European neighbors.

At the start of the epidemic, the "clinical picture" in the Netherlands was similar to that of its northern European neighbors: the first local cases appeared in February and were tied to a persistent cluster (in this case, the province North Brabant)The Netherlands, too, faced a shortage of masks, tests, intensive care beds and ventilators, due to its highly service-based economy and the real cuts that have been made to the public sector, and hospitals especially.

The Netherlands spends 9.9% of its GDP on healthcare, about a percentage point less than France or Germany do. We should not draw hasty conclusions, however: thanks to its wealth - it has the third-highest GDP per capita in the European Union - the country is still in the top tier in terms of health expenditure per capita in Europe.

From "herd immunity" to an "intelligent lockdown": turnaround or consistent strategy?

Here, too, the response to the crisis started to take shape in mid-March (more precisely, between March 12 and 23):

  • A ban on crowd gatherings, followed by a closure of all educational institutions and spaces for leisure and distraction, from schools to coffee shops;
  • Coverage of up to 90% of wages through a resort to partial unemployment and unlimited economic support ("whatever it takes") through fiscal measures and massive bank guarantees for an exporting economy that is particularly exposed to the collapse of international trade, and where powerful multinationals (Shell, Unilever, Philips, Akzo Nobel) rub shoulders with a myriad of small enterprises suddenly at risk of going under.

Early into the crisis, the liberal Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, who has been in power for ten years, aroused sceptical reactions by suggesting "herd immunity" (groepsimmuniteit) as an objective. This led many observers, especially abroad, to suspect a "British-style" policy (the UK’s initial direction) in which the health of a vulnerable population is compromised in order to preserve the economy above all else. However, this interpretation does not take into account the restrictive measures adopted before Rutte’s discourse already, and which were reinforced the following week.

Here as elsewhere, these measures aimed to slow down the spread of the virus as much as possible so as not to overwhelm intensive care units in a context of relative scarcity of medical supplies. As such, the Prime Minister quickly changed his vocabulary to present the national policy under the banner of an "intelligent lockdown" instead. Citizens were firmly asked to stay at home (thuis blijven!), to work from home and not to go out with more than one other person at a time. The police were authorized to fine offenders. Formal prohibitions or severe restrictions were enacted for any large gatherings, from sports events to funerals. Visits to hospitals and retirement homes were forbidden. People in so-called "contact professions" - hairdressers, manicurists - had to suspend their activities. As in France, bars, cafés and restaurants were closed on the very evening of the government’s announcements on March 15.

On the other hand, though, all public spaces, from parks to beaches, have remained accessible, except in cases where local authorities have decided otherwise. No written authorization is required for outings or travel, and the police’s approach is pedagogical more than it is repressive. It should also be noted that many businesses, even "non-essential" ones, have been allowed to stay open; coffee shops, while officially closed, have even launched take-away services. Individual choice, necessity and, above all, responsibility are the ultimate criteria for decisions related to one’s level of mobility and activity. The key word, which has become a true catchphrase in the government’s communication, is "social distancing" - the basis, it is said, for a sustained "one-and-a-half-meter society".

All public spaces, from parks to beaches, have remained accessible. No written authorization is required for outings or travel, and the police’s approach is pedagogical more than it is repressive.

Aside from changes in rhetoric and detail, the measures have fundamentally remained the same for the past two months. Tapping into its material and moral resources, the Netherlands is trying to "flatten out the curve" of contaminations and especially of hospitalizations, even if it means accepting a longer-lasting epidemic - a possibility alluded to by the King himself. This model contrasts as much with the strict lockdowns in most European countries as with the "Swedish way" or the cacophony in the United States. The Netherlands may have wanted to find a balance, at the national level, between both ends of the German solution, characterized by a strict lockdown in certain Länder and flexibility in Berlin. The big difference, though, is that the Netherlands has neither the virological tests nor the industrial resources that Germany has at its disposal.

What is clear is that the choices made by the Dutch aim to safeguard the future, beyond the immediate health imperatives, through three objectives:

  • Avoiding the economic thrombosis that threatens countries with strict lockdowns;
  • Making the transition from lockdown to recovery less abrupt;
  • Allowing for easy steps backwards in policy should the epidemic resume.

An easing of measures began, de facto, on April 21 with the relaxation of restrictions for children and adolescents and the announcement of the partial and gradual reopening of primary schools from May 11 and high schools from June 2.

A strong consensus, despite mixed results and a growing number of questions

This being said, with over 5,200 deaths in early May 2020, the health record of the Dutch approach is hardly enviable, especially as the figures only include hospital deaths and not those - medically-induced or not - in the very many retirement homes of an aging population. In addition, people over 80 are not admitted to intensive care units. This choice does not currently seem to be contested by public opinion, but could have serious human and political consequences when the final balance sheet is drawn up. The strong influence of doctors in public decision-making, through the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and the Outbreak Management Team (OMT), the advisory body to the government, are already being called into question.

In defiance of the country’s particularly strong parliamentary tradition, members of parliament did not get to vote on the decrees issued by the government, which has refused to declare a state of emergency.

Moreover, in defiance of the country’s particularly strong parliamentary tradition, members of parliament did not get to vote on the decrees issued by the government, which has refused to declare a state of emergency. This is an unprecedented procedure that poses a real constitutional problem, as raised by many lawyers and opposition parties. The government has undertaken to resolve this issue through a forthcoming emergency law (spoedwet). Such questions explain why satisfaction with the government’s crisis management fell from 88 to 76% between the end of March and the end of April. At the beginning of May, criticism was growing and people started to wonder whether the "intelligent lockdown" has really been that "intelligent".

Indeed, the Netherlands is situated just below France if the number of deaths is regarded in proportion to population size (293 per 1 million inhabitants), placing it among the countries with the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe. The mortality rate (12.5%), or the ratio between confirmed cases and deaths, is even among the highest in the world, though this is hardly a reliable figure as it depends on the number of people tested, which is very low in the Netherlands. Here, as elsewhere, we will have to wait for final figures on the overall excess mortality rate attributable to the epidemic to know for sure. On the other hand, the "intelligent lockdown" has thus far prevented an economic collapse. Department stores (IKEA, Bijenkorf) and factories (Nedcar) are reopening in rapid succession. But the outlook remains worrying, given the inevitable impact of a global recession on a country highly dependent on exports. The European Commission recently projected a 6.8% contraction of GDP over 2020 - a consequential decline, though still below the average forecast for the Union as a whole.

Despite the growing number of questions, the country is not torn by polemics and the population still follows its leaders, who, for their part, declare themselves open to suggestions and adjustments. Indeed, the government decided to speed things up through a "roadmap" presented on May 6. Even if the official discourse insists on individual responsibility and a conditional timeline ("if possible"), the easing of measures is well and truly underway, and sooner than expected. This applies in particular to bars and restaurants, which will be able to reopen as early as June 1 (subject to conditions). The sacrosanct nature of the summer vacation in the Netherlands is respected through the reopening of campsites on July 1. These decisions illustrate the convenience of an approach that, despite obvious weaknesses (particularly in terms of tests and masks), has never been "set in stone".

The advantage of a trust-based society

To understand this flexibility and consensus, one has to bear in mind the "trust-based" nature of Dutch society and of northern European countries more widely. In comparative studies, notably those by the Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol), the level of trust in institutions repeatedly stands out. The sense that "democracy functions well" is shared by 69% of Dutch people (compared to 50% on average in Europe). Trust in institutions is between 10 and 30 points higher than in most countries: the judicial system, police, army, associations, schools, hospitals, etc. receive approval ratings of 69 to 94%. In the Netherlands, institutions that have been discredited or even ridiculed elsewhere are popular with the majority: the government, parliament, trade unions and the media. Even political parties are trusted by half the population.

There is no doubt that this confidence also stems from the country’s economic and fiscal health over the past several years: at the end of 2019, only 2.9% of the working population was unemployed, the budget surplus lay at 1.7% and debt at 48.6% of GDP - all enviable indicators. These realities clearly put the Netherlands in a better position to tackle both the crisis and its aftermath.

The sense that "democracy functions well" is shared by 69% of Dutch people (compared to 50% on average in Europe).

To date, the country is still borrowing money at negative rates and, in the forecasters’ worst-case scenario, public debt would reach "only" 74% of GDP by the end of 2021. These are essential figures if we are to understand the Netherlands’ reluctance to help the countries of southern Europe, especially when it comes to debt mutualization, of which the Dutch, along with the Germans, would be the obvious losers.

All in all, the country has opted for a policy based on pragmatism and civic-mindedness (or, some would say, conformity and social control), which are the main features of Dutch society. These characteristics are blended with the legacy of Erasmus, Calvin and a solidary habitus forged in the collective fight against bodies of water and more powerful neighbors. Cooperation between the state and business, also deeply rooted in national values, has proved decisive on the vital issue of medical goods, the emergency supply of which is managed through a public-private partnership. Similarly, the immediate involvement of mayors in the lockdown measures reflects an old custom of dialogue between central and local authorities. Added to this is the importance of compromise in Dutch coalition-based politics: in the context of Covid-19 and as a sign of the times, a coalition of four parties, dominated by the liberals of the VVD, has been joined by Martin van Rijn, an individual from the Labor Party (PvdA). On March 23, he took over the dreaded portfolio of medical care (Medische zorg), which had pushed his predecessor past his limits. It may well be that in times of crisis, a coalition system, based on a fully proportional vote as it is in the Netherlands, offers a representativeness advantage over majority-party and ballot systems. The Dutch government now bears a strong resemblance to a cabinet of national unity, even if it clearly leans toward the center-right. As does public opinion, incidentally.

The coalition has also been able to manage its communication well, despite a few hiccups. Here, too, masks were initially labeled as "useless", even capable of provoking a sense of "false protection"; here, too, the closure of schools was ordered after having been excluded a few days prior. The March 23 press conference on the lockdown measures was "messy" (rommelig), according to Mark Rutte himself. But the government has repeatedly acknowledged mistakes and reversals. It has shown humility and, through the Prime Minister, admitted that it has had to take "100% of the decisions with 50% of the knowledge".

Humility is not mutually exclusive with solemnity: for the first time since 1973, the Head of Government soberly addressed the nation on March 16, and king Willem-Alexander delivered two messages of comfort to his people. The quality of their speeches, in a country not very prone to rhetoric, is notable: the brief discourses were characterized by the use of the collective "we" and struck a good balance between empathy and authority, warning and hope.

This is why, in the run-up to the general elections scheduled for ten months from now, Mark Rutte’s popularity currently seems to have grown through the crisis. His approval rating has increased by 30 points to reach 75% - one of the highest scores among western leaders.

In short, though the results are mixed, the Dutch collective resilience suggests that a crisis as devastating as that of Covid-19 operates, in the words of Marcel Mauss, as a "total social fact". Rather than ringing in the advent of a "new world", it first and foremost reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a community.

 

Copyright : Remko DE WAAL / ANP / AFP

 

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