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Corona crisis: how is the Netherlands responding?

‘The Netherlands’ response to coronavirus is inconsistent.’ These are the words of Leiden political scientist Arjen Boin, an expert in crisis management. Vulnerable groups such as the elderly need more personalised advice. ‘It would be better to cancel bridge tournaments than football games.’

A specialist in disaster management, Boin researches major crises all around the world, such as natural disasters and calamities that disrupt whole communities. What strikes him is that the Netherlands has been so slow to respond. ‘Since the beginning of January, we could have expected this very infectious virus to reach the Netherlands, but the Netherlands hardly took any measures at all.’

Business as usual or lockdown?

In this kind of crisis there are roughly two response models, Boin explains. With model A it’s business as usual wherever possible and with model B its lockdown wherever possible. The Netherlands has opted for model A. This is why people from high-risk areas in Italy, Japan and South Korea could travel freely to the Netherlands and vice versa, and no major events were cancelled. Boin: ‘I’m not saying that this is bad, but I’m just concluding that A is the choice that has been made. The gates are wide open therefore. Economic interests would appear to be prevailing. That’s a defensible choice, but it would be good if the PM or health minister would be clear about this.’

EU needs to coordinate its response

The assumption is that we can switch to model B if the situation here deteriorates. But that would be too late, says Boin. The European member states aren’t working together properly, he says – each country is responding in its own way. It was only last week that the EU Crisis Council began to coordinate the corona crisis. Boin calls for a more streamlined response and proper coordination of ‘corona measures’ by the member states.

Mixed message

The Dutch government is sending out a mixed message in some respects, says Boin. ‘They are making it clear that we should take the novel coronavirus seriously and that the cabinet is in crisis talks, but at the same time they are keen to emphasise that most people aren’t in danger, that we mustn’t be too quick to call the doctor and that we can’t all get ourselves tested en masse.’

Differentiate between target groups

A measured approach helps prevent unnecessary panic, doesn’t it? Boin: ‘A measured tone is good, but what I miss is differentiation in the policy and proper measures for people for whom the virus really can be dangerous.’ The restrained policy may prevent many elderly people and carers from seeking medical advice when they first experience symptoms. He wants it to be easier for people to get tested and for the elderly and patients to receive more personalised advice. ‘Perhaps they should avoid busy places like full trains and restaurants. Some football games are being cancelled, but it might be better to do that for bridge tournaments where the players are generally much older.’

Peak pressure

Boin doesn’t subscribe to the argument that we should avoid peak pressure on the health service. ‘The Netherlands is a rich country and we have been preparing for the next pandemic for years. If the economy is allowed to carry on, money shouldn’t be an issue for the health service.’

Banner photo: information screen at Schiphol Airport at the end of January Flights from and to China hadn’t yet been cancelled.

Text: Linda van Putten

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