In the Netherlands if we are better at something, we like international comparisons. And if we are not better at it, the answer is: ‘This is not a competition!’ During the corona crisis, Dutch failure is often presented as Dutch superiority.
About a year ago I became a Dutch citizen. In the age of corona, that was a strange experience: I cycled through empty streets to the city hall with an ambulance siren roaring in the distance, and had to wait behind a glass screen for a while before being handed an envelope with my new identity papers. There was no ceremony, no mayor’s handshake, no national anthem. The whole experience was more like getting a new driver’s license than a festive moment. But despite the gloomy mood, I was genuinely happy to have become a Dutch citizen.
I had moved to the Netherlands about ten years earlier and had quickly built a good life here; learned the Dutch language, had a half-Dutch family, bought a house in the Groene Hart and wrote books about Dutch history and culture. In that context I was proud to have become a Dutch citizen; a happy, prosperous citizen of a country that I loved and admired. Strangely, getting citizenship also felt like giving a vote of confidence to the country as a whole.
The start of it all
By the time I went to collect my papers, the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic had just begun, and this country seemed to be doing remarkably well. There had been some early missteps, but in general, even when other countries reported panic purchases of goods such as toilet paper, the Dutch responded with typical sobriety. ‘We can poop for ten years,’ said Mark Rutte with a smile. The contrast to my old homeland, Britain, which was still working its way to a Brexit deal at the time and switching government more often than most people, was stark. And if there was a country anywhere in the world that could ‘dam’ a ‘first wave’ or a ‘second wave’, I assumed it was this country — the country that practically invented disaster prevention. On my blog I wrote: ‘This could be the most beautiful moment in the polder model.‘
The gap between what should have been possible in this country and what has actually been achieved is huge.
Almost a year later, I unfortunately have to say that those words come across as a bit naive. By some measures, the Netherlands has done reasonably well: the total number of deaths from corona here (in relation to the total population) is significantly lower than in Great Britain, France or Belgium.
More deaths: They are not just numbers, they were people, with families & friends & children & dreams.
But if you take a step back, you soon realise that the performance of this country may not have been completely terrible, but not very good either. According to its population size, the Netherlands has experienced considerably more deaths than Germany, and more than twice as many as Denmark. The number of infections was sometimes higher than almost everywhere in Europe. Patients have flown abroad because Dutch hospitals could not cope, and we were among the countries in Europe where the delivery of life-saving vaccines was the slowest.
The gap between what should have been possible in this country and what has actually been achieved is huge. As a new citizen who sees the government struggling to explain why something went wrong, I often think about what my mother said to me when I misbehaved as a teenager:
‘I’m not angry. I’m just really disappointed.’
As a newcomer of sorts, I have also realised that some of the things I initially admired about this country are now turning out to be crucial weaknesses. I remember when I arrived in the Netherlands years ago, after working as a political advisor in London, I was amazed at how mature Dutch politics seemed, with its constant emphasis on evidence and compromise. Where Westminster felt like a boxing ring where everyone was constantly fighting each other, The Hague was more like a fun club or university, full of nice, smart people who worked together to get things done. Things moved slowly, but if you live below sea level it paid off not to make any sudden movements.
It was considered a smart society once…
In normal times, this poldering often worked fantastic and helped the Netherlands to become one of the richest, safest and happiest societies in the world. But it is clear that these same mechanisms can lead to paralysis during a crisis. An example of this was the infamous debate about face masks. The who advised on June 5 to wear mouth masks in confined public spaces. The United Kingdom made the wearing of masks mandatory in public transport on June 15, and in shops from July 24. France made face masks mandatory in shops at the end of July, and even McDonald’s in the United States made them mandatory for customers from August 1. In the sober Netherlands, however, the simple wearing of a mouth mask somehow remained just as controversial as Zwarte Piet.
The mask debate: Where did the common sense go?
Faced with a situation where there was an urgent need to do unpopular things, the authorities wasted months discussing and debating. Mayors said people should wear face masks, the RIVM said that was not necessary, and ministers seemed unable to make up their minds. As a result of all this, face masks in public spaces were not mandatory until December 1 – four months after McDonald’s; By that time, almost ten thousand Dutch people had already died of the virus, including (presumably) some who would have survived if wearing mouth masks had been routine. While leaders like Joe Biden, Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson are rarely seen without a mask, we hardly ever see Rutte wearing one.
Almost ten thousand Dutch people had already died of the virus, including (presumably) some who would have survived if wearing mouth masks had been routine.
And it’s not just the masks that came too late. Other sensible policies – testing children for symptoms, discouraging holidays from abroad, making more space in the shops – were introduced much later than it should have been. Hugo de Jonge’s famous corona app was announced in the spring, but only launched months later, when the German version already had almost as many users as the Netherlands has residents.
Every week there seems to be a new example of this ‘government by hesitation‘: a promise that they will start thinking about something, that the RIVM will review the data, that the cabinet will hold a meeting in three weeks to decide whether to consider a possible policy change. Faced with a deadly crisis, the Dutch state resembles an oil tanker floating in pea soup: unable to change direction quickly.
Another surprise is the strange arrogance that characterises the Dutch reaction. We hear a lot about American ‘exceptionalism’- the idea, as articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, that Americans think their country is superior to other countries and uniquely qualified to run the world. Yet I have the impression that the Dutch show a similar trait; that they easily assume that their approach is the best, and that other countries are only doing badly because they are too lazy or too badly organised to get things right. For example, look at the infamous claim by Jeroen Dijsselbloem that Southern European countries ‘spend all their money on spirits and women‘, or Rutte who says that England ‘has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically.’
During the pandemic we were invariably told that the Netherlands does not need hard lockdowns like other countries, because we would be more sensible here. When asked in March 2020 why there was no tougher lockdown, Rutte replied: ‘That does not suit the mature, democratic, proud Netherlands…‘ In the months that followed, the message remained largely the same: ‘We are grown-up people‘, and the situation here was not ‘like in other countries‘. Even the name of the flagship government policy spoke volumes: ‘intelligent lockdown’, with the clear implication that everyone else’s versions were stupid.
Politically, this rhetoric was understandable: leaders are unlikely to lose votes if they tell the public they are smart. But the problem is, if you tell people they are less at risk, you can encourage risky behavior. Much of last summer, many people here pretended there was a special Dutch variant of the coronavirus that somehow made them immune and continued to do things that other Europeans thought impossible: going to the gym, sitting in crowded restaurants, having parties in crowded living rooms and flying abroad for vacation, even when other countries went into lockdown. According to RIVM surveys, only half of the Dutch stay at home when they have symptoms and only half get tested. Sobriety is often more like recklessness.
If you tell people they are less at risk, you can encourage risky behavior.
In mid-December, the Netherlands had one of the highest contamination rates in Europe, the concept of the ‘intelligent lockdown’ had been quietly abandoned and we were instead heading for a real lockdown. The ‘adult, stubborn’ Dutch turned out to be just as vulnerable as anyone else. Nevertheless, I have lost count of all the times someone said to me something like: ‘It’s terrible how things are in your country’, which meant Great Britain – even at times when things were actually getting worse in the Netherlands. The failures of other countries prove us right, but the successes of other countries are largely ignored. I can almost imagine the boys in my favorite bar in Rotterdam shouting: ‘Yes, the number of infections in Belgium is lower, but have you seen the state of their roads?!’
The faster we vaccinate, the more lives we save, the faster we go back to normal life – but not in the Netherlands…
More recently, we have also seen a special attitude towards vaccines. If there is one country that should be able to properly organise vaccinations, it is this country: small and densely populated, richer than Germany or Saudi Arabia, with excellent transport links and almost everyone lives near a doctor or a hospital. But despite these benefits, our performance is disappointing: at the beginning of February, the total number of Dutch people who had received a vaccine was much lower than the number of Britons vaccinated every day.
Thousands of people have died since the first vaccines were approved by the regulator, and it is clear that normal life cannot be resumed until most people have been vaccinated.
However, a lot of people still seem to think that long delays don’t matter as long as we get there in the end – which is kind of like saying that if your house is on fire, it doesn’t matter if the fire brigade comes today or in September. Although we like international comparisons when we are in good shape (GDP growth, debt, deficits), the comparisons are mocked when we get off badly (infection rates, vaccinations): ‘This is not a competition!‘
Instead of being honest about failures, people suggest that it is others who have a problem and that the Netherlands is doing everything right. ‘We are not opting for a symbolic shot‘, said De Jonge in December. ‘It is not safe to do it sooner.’ In other words, if things are slow here, it is because others are careless, not because we have done it badly. Dutch failure is thus presented as proof of Dutch superiority. George Orwell would be proud.
Search in Dutch history and you will see why…
If you think about what causes such an attitude, you might look for deep historical roots: ancient religious practices to condemn bad behavior; the ‘vocational mentality‘, which is based on the assumption that smart Dutch people know how to run the world. However, it seems to me that the clumsy response to corona can be attributed in part to the political system. In countries like England or the US, there is a clear dividing line between (roughly) one large government party and one large opposition party. If the first messes up something, the second will criticise it strongly.
In the Netherlands, however, some of Rutte’s biggest rivals are in his own cabinet. When something goes wrong, the harshest criticism often does not come from the mainstream but from stubborn individuals like Peter Omtzigt (CDA) – but if you vote for those critics, you might help their parties to form a new coalition with Rutte at the top. Positions have hardened in recent years, and there are plenty of populist politicians making their mark. But political culture remains remarkably forgiving.
The Dutch have a reputation for being direct, but when things go wrong or people behave badly (holding a wedding party in spite of the lockdown, for example) the instinct is usually still to say: ‘Let’s not be too harsh, it is what it is, we’re all friends here!’
It wasn’t me, it was them!
With a four-party coalition, liability is fading: If the government makes mistakes, who can say who is guilty? Like a gang of kids caught smashing a window, the coalition parties can point to each other and shout, ‘It wasn’t me, it was them!’
The media also play a role. Many Dutch journalists do a great job, but there is also sometimes a reluctance to ask hard questions. Is it really good for the country that when the Prime Minister gives a comprehensive presentation on thousands of people dying and vaccines not being delivered, the first question is always something like, ‘What does this mean for our vacation plans?’
After a grim start of 2021, attitudes now seem to have changed. Everyone is stressed and bored, and patience is running out. The government is harshly criticised and even Rutte criticises the ‘selfish’ Dutch people who do not comply with the rules. But looking at last year’s surveys, the prevailing public mood appears to be one of benevolent acceptance. I&O surveys show that government support for tackling corona decreased between March 2020 and May 2020, but remained stable for months thereafter.
In May 2020, 75% of the Dutch said they largely support the government’s corona policy; in January 2021 it was 72%- higher than in October, before the latest wave of infections (source). In January, 58% of the Dutch said they were satisfied with the country’s vaccination campaign, against only 31% of the French (source).
Elections: Passive attitude doesn’t make the world go round
Political opinion polls show a comparable passivity. After a year of corona, some fifteen thousand deaths, an economic crisis, the benefits affair, riots and the vaccination debacle, the VVD is on track to win twice as many seats as any other party.
Whichever party you support, this contrast is remarkable. Based on current trends, Rutte could ban bitterballen and sell the Catshuis to the Germans and still get more votes than before.
A year after my modest ‘citizenship ceremony’, I am still happy to be a Dutch citizen; i love many things in this country: our people, our landscape, our history, the fact that you can eat good cheese for breakfast. There are a number of things in the response to corona that I admire, such as the heroic way many public services have continued to run. We may look back in a few years and think we didn’t do that bad at all.
But it is also undeniable that in my first year as a Dutchman my view of the Netherlands has changed in a way that I never thought possible. A country that I thought was an island of stability and efficiency has screwed up things that should have been straightforward.
In denying the magnitude of the problem, many people have behaved carelessly, or just passively shrugged as things got worse. And the system itself seems to be cracking.
The past Dutch glory didn’t help with the virus
As a Briton, after 2016, I got used to hearing arguments that Britain is a country that has failed to find a convincing role for itself after the collapse of its empire, and that it has tarried too long on past glory and fantasies. Now, as a Dutchman, that seems like a warning. It is difficult not to be alarmed by the way we justify our failures and cling to the past glory of the polder model, the Golden Age and the Delta Works.
As I write this, my new Dutch passport is in my desk drawer, unwrinkled and still waiting to be used. When I go on a trip again and someone asks me where I am from, I will be able to say with appropriate pride: ‘I am Dutch, from the beautiful country of the Netherlands.’ But when they ask how our country is run, I will say: ‘Many things are done right, but some things are done very wrong.’
[This article was first published in Dutch in, De Groene.]
Ben Coates is the best-selling author of the books ‘Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands’ and ‘The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps’.
He was born in England in 1982 and has worked at various times as a political adviser in London, speechwriter, lobbyist and aid worker in Africa. He currently lives in a cottage in the Dutch countryside with his wife, daughter and dog. He is a Dutch/British dual citizen and speaks and writes in both languages.
Ben also works freelance as a journalist for outlets including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, NRC, AD, Scotsman and Irish Times; and occasionally on other writing projects.