‘This is typical Dutch pragmatism’
Why the Netherlands is not on lockdown (yet)
It was as if the coronavirus hadn’t touched the Netherlands at all, this past weekend. Granted, the sun was out and everyone wanted to get some air after working from home all week. But to many a health professional’s horror, people decided to throw caution to the wind, ignore the calls for social distancing and flock to the beaches, markets and parks.
Even though the Dutch government had forbidden large gatherings and closed schools and restaurants, it had stopped short of going in complete lockdown. So legally, people were still allowed to go to beaches, markets and parks.
According to Jan Maarten van Dijl, microbiologist at the UMCG, this speaks to the Dutch sense of autonomy. ‘We’re used to doing our own thing without too much government interference’.
Then, this Monday evening, after seeing the images of crowded beaches, the government prohibited all gatherings of three or more people who don’t respect the 1.5 meter distance, if they aren’t members of the same household. This goes until at least June 1. Mayors and police can now fine people who break these rules up to 400 euros.
We’re used to doing our own thing without government interference
Almost a month after the first patient in the Netherlands was diagnosed with COVID-19, the tally nears the five thousand. The government has gradually imposed more measures. From calling on everyone to stop shaking hands, to closing schools and restaurants, to shutting the borders to non-EU nationals and now fining gatherings of more than three people. But still there’s no lockdown.
Instead, the Netherlands has chosen a different approach, as prime minister Mark Rutte stated in his speech on March 16: that of ‘maximum control’, to protect the economy from crashing, and the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.
In that same speech, Rutte introduced the term of group, or herd, immunity.
Most scientists think it is unlikely that you can get the coronavirus twice. This means that those who have had the virus are now immune and can no longer infect others. They are the herd, forming a protective wall around the vulnerable people who have not yet been infected. ‘If a person can infect fewer than one other, the virus will flame out’, explains Anke Huckriede, vaccinologist at the UMCG.
‘Immunity to a virus is always the end goal’, she says. ‘But you need a large percentage of the population to have been infected with a virus to reach this immunity’.
And the only way to achieve that is to have people interact. Madness, as the critical voices from abroad say? Or a wise decision?
Huckriede stresses that it’s not like we’ve all become guinea pigs in one big government experiment. ‘A vaccine would create the same immunity, but we don’t have one yet and it may be months or years away before we do.’
Emotionally, both Van Dijl and Huckriede want nothing more than to protect everyone and lock them inside their homes. But they agree that the measures the Dutch government has put in place are the most rational ones to ‘flatten the curve’ and spread the pressure on the healthcare system.
If we go into lockdown, we’d need to wait for a vaccine, a lasting solution
‘It’s realistic that a lot of people will get infected’, says Van Dijl. A lockdown will only defer the problem. ‘This situation won’t have changed after a lockdown ends, so the spikes of cases will resurface with the people.’
Only herd immunity, either through natural infection or a vaccine, could help us out of this situation, agrees Huckriede. ‘So if we go into lockdown,
we should be prepared that this could take a year or longer, because we then
need to wait for that vaccine, for that lasting solution.’
The decision to go into lockdown should not be made lightly, both experts say. ‘With any measure, you have to calculate how long you can sustain it,’ says Huckriede, ‘and we have to be rational about the repercussions and the economic consequences of a lockdown.’
So Dutch society is still operating, though on the back burner. ‘This is typical Dutch pragmatism’, says Van Dijl.
But a lot of other countries frown upon what they see as Dutch naïveté. And to many people, it is unsettling that scientists don’t seem to agree on the right procedure. Which approach is best?
You can pull at the helm, but the ship won’t change course immediately
All scientists are confronted with the same numbers and the same unknowns, says Huckriede. ‘And like in all groups of people, there are optimists and pessimists in science.’
Van Dijl agrees. ‘Everyone had to anticipate on this unique situation, but nobody knew how fast the virus would spread and what routes it would take. Only time will tell who was right.’
The results of the Dutch measures will become visible in the coming week, Van Dijl hopes. ‘You have to think of it as steering a ship. You can pull at the helm, but that doesn’t mean the ship will change course immediately.’
Still, PM Rutte said during Monday’s press conference that they were practically out of options before a complete lockdown.
‘It really depends on the behaviour of the people’, says Van Dijl. ‘So more importantly than the whole conversation about herd immunity, we all have to be rational and respect the limits put in place for our safety.’