When do you Stop Caring About the Pandemic and Just get on With Your Life?
A foreigner teleporting into the town center of the Dutch city where I live in would be hard-pressed to tell there’s a pandemic going on, at least based on the behavior of people on the street.
Sure, there are markings on the grounds around market stalls, shuttered cafés and restaurants offering takeaway only, and a limited amount of customers allowed in any store at once but physical distancing doesn’t seem to be much of a concern.
Teenagers hang out in packs, seniors are living their best life, and families are walking around.
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Dutch kids have enjoyed an enormous amount of leeway compared to neighboring EU countries like Germany or Belgium. There’s a playground in the middle of the square where I live and it has never been empty, neither have the side streets where kids have been playing outdoors every day without a care in the world.
As a non-parent and a non-Dutch national, I don’t know what to make of it and I don’t feel it’s my place to judge.
As a rule, I love the community spirit around this city where every neighborhood even has its own ‘krant’ aka seasonal newspaper/magazine hybrid that drops through the letterbox free of charge every now and then. Not only is it a physical object but it also has no bylines but for a friendly note from the two editors, Eleonoor and Maaike.
Families on bikes with the kids in a little wagon is also a common sight, and there seems to be the widespread belief COVID-19 cannot affect children. This doesn’t stop them from being potential carriers but no one seems to worry much about that.
Then again, you could conceivably remain within the perimeter of this neighborhood and only interact with neighbors thus willingly, i.e. voluntarily, creating a de facto ghetto. There’s a small grocery store around the corner that has everything, including fresh produce and flowers. People are respectful, kind, polite and there’s a tacit consensus that none of the rules apply to the little ones.
But even if we were a self-regulating micro-city, there would always be outsiders, like the incessant ballet of mail carriers, couriers, and food delivery people that increased the moment the government advised people to stay home and follow health advisories.
The government advised but didn’t impose, unlike in France or in Germany, because trust is a cultural implication: You are free to do the right thing when asked because we trust you will.
It seems to have been good for morale but the government still had to trigger the nationwide emergency alert system to remind us to behave.
When you go to the grocery store here, you’re expected to sanitize your own basket or cart before you use it. Whether or not you do is up to you but everything you need is provided.
Only one chain employs people to clean those for customers so they don’t have to, ensuring everyone is as protected as possibly can be.
That’s quite the literal take on customer care yet this is the more relaxed version of having to disinfect your hands with antibacterial gel then don a pair of gloves before being allowed inside the store.
From the very beginning, this chain chose to bet on the personal touch approach despite the extra costs.
Perhaps because I have a parent with Stage 4 cancer and her immune system is a memory at this point, I tend to be hyper-vigilant. But the seniors I encountered on my walk were unconcerned, making no attempt whatsoever to dodge anyone.
Not everyone dodged them either. Many of the town centre streets are narrow and pedestrian but there are also more bikes than ever and physical distancing can be a crapshoot.
Then again, if you know you’re going to die soon-ish anyway, do you really want to spend a precious few months cooped up at home in fear? Do you even care if you cause someone else to die too? After all, you won’t be alive anymore to care. Problem solved!
My own mother would prefer to hasten her demise — COVID-19 has severed almost all the ties that tethered her to the world. She did a lot of volunteering work and its sudden disappearance severely impacted her already tentative mental health. She was complaining about how uncomfortable masks — which are mandatory under many circumstances in France — were so I had to remind her wearing one wasn’t for her benefit but to protect others.
That did it.
My mother may not care much about her own survival but she’d rather die than be the cause of someone else’s death. Many of us can relate to that regardless of how old we are.
But while most of us understand the logic behind physical distancing and lockdown measures, we also sometimes regard them as sacrifices we are being forced to make rather than politely asked to make.
And this rankles.
Even if the end result is the same, we like to have a choice, we do not like being told what to do, and what containing the pandemic required of us is something many of consider a potential or actual infringement of our civil liberties.
It’s not just an American thing yet there’s a notable difference between us: guns. A European might spit or sneeze on you to make a point but they will not shoot you. And it would take a particularly abhorrent specimen to even do that.
Instead, many prefer to quietly pretend the rules don’t apply to them, to which the Police can now reply, “That’ll be 390 euros and a criminal record for five years.”
Meanwhile, lawyers have been debating the legality of all those measures. Old Amsterdam isn’t all that dissimilar to the new one after all.
What constitutes a sacrifice, exactly? To some, it is a human life, including their own. To others, it is about personal preferences and rights.
For most of us, it’s never that clear-cut.
Harping on about canceled vacations and not being able to go to the local pool or beach can make us sound entitled and tone-deaf. Or it can be a sincere expression of crushing disappointment at having to sacrifice the one thing you scrimped and saved for all year, the one thing that kept you going, the one thing that justified all your sacrifices.
We’ve all had to surrender innumerable things to save lives while abiding by health advisories and it has cost us dearly in mental health, in physical health, and in financial health, as determined by our geographical coordinates, ethnicity, and means.
At the same time, many of us are also on the verge of ruin, homelessness, and hunger so holidays don’t even register at this point: You’re too busy working all the time to try and stave off the inevitable that is all you do beside sleeping, eating, and showering.
Your nights remain too short, albeit slightly longer than before.
When price gouging on masks already makes them prohibitively expensive to those of lesser means (10 euros for 10 or 60 euros for 50 in my city) and remain hard to get hold of, if the people around you aren’t wearing one unless it’s mandatory then why would you sacrifice money you can’t afford to sacrifice to protect them? How much of this is cultural? How much of this is attitude?
If they don’t care about you, why should you care about them?
You buy two boxes of ten masks anyway.
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.