Can we be Trusted to do the Right Thing During a Pandemic?

The Dutch approach to containing the COVID-19 outbreak remains generous to a fault

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Can the government trust people to do their civic duty during the pandemic without forcing them to?

So far, this has been the preferred approach here in the Netherlands since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Although the government keeps adopting ever stricter measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, PM Mark Rutte yet has to declare a total lockdown even though our neighbors Luxembourg and Belgium have.

Instead, the government has chosen to trust people will observe social distancing, work from home whenever able, and generally limit going out to getting essential supplies and for exercise. Some socializing is OK so long as you respect certain parameters but all gatherings are now banned until June 1 and local authorities have been given more leeway to enforce measures as they see fit.

For example, a mayor can now decide to close off places where people gather, such as parks and beaches, and law enforcement can fine groups of over three people. But public markets, a cornerstone of Dutch life, remain exempt from the ban on gatherings at the time of writing.

Fines are steep because hitting people in the wallet is the most effective way to get the message across to those who have consistently been ignoring health advisories, be they individuals or businesses.

And yet, the government continues to trust us, affording the population as much comfort and freedom as possible under current circumstances. Whether we’re worthy of this trust remains to be seen.

When faced with a crisis, many humans seem to turn into toddlers with the temperament that matches the age range. We behave like brats, throw tantrums, and do exactly as we please until someone mentions toilet paper. The risk of not being able to do conduct our business in quite the way we’ve been accustomed to turns many of us into instant family pack hoarding hamsters.

Even though our homes are quite small and many don’t even have closets.

“Stop it!” the PM told us a week ago but stores were eventually forced to ration rolls because no one listened. And the very same medical workers an entire country gave a standing ovation to at 7PM on Saint Patrick’s Day had to post pictures of empty supermarket shelves and beg people to leave some food behind.

So they, who had worked a long shift saving lives, would have something to eat when they came home.

As a result, there have never been as many staff in grocery stores as there are now, stocking shelves during the day to make sure everything is available. And every single one of them is an unsung hero. But shoppers? Many are still living their best life and making the most of the uncommonly gorgeous weather. On the square where I live, kids continue to play out all day despite the nationwide cell phone alert the government sent us at the weekend.

Calls for the government to drop the maximum control i.e. herd immunity approach and ground everybody continue to intensify every time the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment releases their daily COVID-19 figures.

And yet, we’ve been told clearly what to do, and we’ve been reminded, and concessions have even been made to accommodate our relaxed cannabis laws. To prevent street crime, the government deemed coffee shops essential businesses and allowed them to reopen promptly under very strict conditions. Only one or two customers are allowed in at a time, and staff are behind a Plexiglas barrier as is the case with pharmacies and supermarkets.

But people still congregate in front of the door and queue up, and the cops then have to be called to disperse them and allow the shop to close when it’s time.

Instead of looking at ourselves, we’re quick to blame those we elected to represent us for our own failure to take anyone other than our person into account. Without a hint of irony, we demand from our elected officials the leadership we aren’t even capable of as individuals in our communities.

Should our governments take our responsibilities for us? Have we become unable to think for ourselves?

When people ask the government to take their freedom away because they can’t trust their peers to respect rules designed to keep everyone safe, it’s a very big deal.

But is it really a matter of life or death? Not everyone realizes how serious this is even though the entire planet agrees there’s a problem.

When have we ever agreed on anything as a world?

This pandemic doesn’t know borders, it doesn’t care about who you are or the state of your bank account or what passport you hold.

So where does the hubris of being so glibly unconcerned comes from and what makes some of us so cavalier about public health? Every time we defy health advisories, we’re playing roulette not just with our health but with the health of others.

And whatever for? The guilty pleasure of bunking off work for those who are still lucky to be employed and work remotely? To get the kids away from under our feet? To occupy ourselves because we’re at a loss as to what to do and we haven’t seen our friends for ages so now’s the perfect time to throw a party?

Not everyone is an essential worker, not everyone has the privilege or luxury of staying home but there’s a reason we’ve been asked to do so and to observe social distancing when outside.

This is how we can all help save lives, and it’s really not all that much to ask, is it?

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.

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