A Very Brutal Awakening

Defying government health advisories during a pandemic puts everyone at risk, not just you

Dutch government emergency alert, March 22, 2020 — screenshot by author (Translation: Follow instructions from the government: Stay 1.5m away from people! Are you sick or did you catch a cold? Stay home. Protect yourself and those around you. Together against Corona.)

Late morning today on March 22, everyone in the Netherlands was shocked into paying attention to government COVID-19 health advisories many had gleefully ignored.

If I say gleefully it is because we’ve had wonderful weather in the last week, something that’s unusual for a windy little country below sea level where it rains a lot.

Although the Dutch government ordered all educational facilities, cafés, restaurants, gyms, and coffee shops (aka pot shops) to close from March 16 until April 6, many people have been treating this as an impromptu holiday, going places and holding dinner parties. All gatherings of over 100 people are banned but markets, a cornerstone of Dutch life, were still happening throughout last week in my city here in North Holland. While there are noticeably far fewer people on the street, many are groups, parents with kids, young adults with friends…

Like many, I live in a densely populated area, on a square flanked by two schools and a daycare. The middle of the square is a playground and kids have been playing out all week every single day. And at the time of writing, they still are while some parents are milling around having a chat despite what happened a few hours ago.

We have a nationwide emergency alert system that can send a message to every cell phone within Dutch borders, regardless of whether you have a Dutch number (I do not). This system gets tested twice a year, triggering all cell phones with a sound that is unlike regular text messages or notifications so people take notice. Unless your phone is on silent, it’s impossible to ignore as it’s both loud and unpleasant.

Today wasn’t an alert, and the picture above is the message we all received.

By the look of things, it still wasn’t enough to convince some people of the seriousness of the situation. So far, lockdown hasn’t been the preferred choice here because the government was loath to paralyze social life or the economy but many citizens and residents have been putting pressure on PM Mark Rutte to declare it.

More than likely, this is what will happen very soon because the daily increase of COVID-19 cases speaks for itself. The alert wouldn’t have been sent out otherwise.

This isn’t a Dutch problem but a worldwide one.

Pretending life is going on as normal by refusing to practice social distancing is putting everyone at risk and yet many continue to live their best life, playing roulette with public health.

Since COVID-19 broke out, we’ve been stuck in a moral maze we have no idea how to exit. Despite a clear and present danger not just to our communities but to our countries, many of us remain quite unfamiliar with the concept of solidarity.

Because it’s new, no human has any immunity against this virus so we’re all equally vulnerable. And yet, we’re unwilling to accept something that could sicken us could sicken others too, possibly leading to death.

Yours, mine, ours.

This isn’t sensationalism, this is common sense and yet the media isn’t helping. Some of us still need to be told how doing something for someone else might benefit us before we even begin to consider doing it. We still need our governments to threaten us with fines for being outside without a valid reason or necessary documentation, as is the case in France for example.

At what point do we get over ourselves and begin to demand better from one another?

At what point do we stop seeing other humans as threats and begin to see them as kin?

And at what point do we begin to employ language to match?

Here’s the thing everyone forgets: We’re all media now, folks, but minus the editorial training or the ethics that come with it. To be clear, now’s really not the time to freak people out for clicks and bucks, now’s really not the time for personal branding either, now’s really not the time for cashing in on people’s despair by teaching them how to make money online against a fee so you can profit from their disempowerment.

Don’t be that person, shut that shit down.

If we want a kinder, more compassionate world now’s the time to work on a proof of concept and incubate a better society. As a bonus, it’ll keep us distracted from uncertainty by forcing us to envision an alternative to what is, together.

When you’re focused on something you’re interested in, you’re far less likely to start ruminating.

And who wouldn’t be interested in living in a supportive society where all human lives have equal value? Who wouldn’t be interested in helping shape such a supportive society?

COVID-19 is here to remind us solidarity is no longer an abstract but an urgent need. We need to pool resources, emotional and material, not reinforce individualism. Profiteering won’t save anyone this time, it’ll only divide us further when the only way forward and through is by closing ranks.

If you still believe forced isolation is about finding our inner artists or entrepreneurs then take this thinking one step further and go the Bill Gates way even if you don’t have two red cents in your name.

What’s your talent? What do you know how to do well?

If you have a knack for making people laugh then your living room is a world stage. If you know how to do this in print, please take our eyeballs, we beg you. If you weave words together into poetry, this is an emergency and your time to foist lyrical love upon the unsuspecting. Those weird family recipes whereby you conjure up a culinary miracle out of odds and ends? Why not show us how you do that?

But please drop the woe is me shtick because it’s gone meta: Woe is us now and we’re rather not be reminded of it too often. Because it’s depressing and it smothers the very creativity we depend upon to survive, both metaphorically and literally.

And we’re all creative.

Creativity is a problem-solving mindset, it’s the reason you put a bucket under a leaky sink until you can get it fixed. It’s innate, the sweet spot where curiosity, experience, and experimentation intersect. No one starts out with experience but we all have common sense, don’t we?

What if weathering a pandemic were dependent upon finding how the combination of things that make us who we are can be useful to the community?

This is how human evolution happens. Until then, social distancing saves lives.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store