As Coronavirus Surges, Chastened Dutch Wonder, ‘What Happened to Us?’


AMSTERDAM — As coronavirus cases have shot through the roof, waiting times for tests and results have grown so lengthy that the health authorities have considered sending samples to labs in Abu Dhabi. Contact tracing, divided among 25 competing contractors, has never gotten off the ground.

After months of discouraging the use of masks, saying they promote a false sense of security, the government just did an about face, calling for them to be worn in all public spaces.

And topping it all off, the royal family, ignoring the government’s advice to travel as little as possible, flew off to their luxurious holiday home in Greece, adding to growing mistrust and resentment at home.

Britain? Spain? No. It’s the Netherlands, one of Europe’s wealthiest countries, renowned for its efficient and organized government in most circumstances — but not, apparently, in the pandemic.

The infection numbers keep rising, to a record 10,346 new cases on Monday in a country of 17 million people — one-19th the size of the United States, which is reporting in the neighborhood of 75,000 new cases a day. And it is hard to keep track of the true toll, with the country’s official data incomplete because of technical errors.

Last week, new coronavirus patients had to be transferred by helicopter to Germany to relieve Dutch intensive-care units.

After weeks of taking incremental steps to curb the spread of the virus, the government announced Oct. 14 that, in addition to the new rules on face masks, all bars and restaurants would close for at least four weeks. With infections still rising, the authorities are considering establishing an evening curfew to keep people indoors, or even a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown.

For the Dutch, who generally regard their country as one of the best run in the world — with at times an undertone of superiority — the level of institutional chaos has been a hard reckoning.

“It’s shocking really. I always thought we were one of the best countries in the world, best organized,” said Rob Elgersma, 18, an agriculture student. “But now, they have the ability to fix things but can’t get their act together. What happened to us?”

That’s a question a lot of Dutch people are asking right now.

“We are not a country where top-down leadership is much appreciated,” said Alexander Rinnooy Kan, a former member of the Dutch Senate. “Everything is done based on consensus.”


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