The backlash against the Dutch government’s recent and limited proposals is not driven by misinformation or panic, but by the availability of information elsewhere. The example of countries around us contrasts sharply with the official response. Now individuals and institutions are taking action themselves.
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates an important lesson on the interaction between science, and the society that produces it. Scientists around the world have contributed valuable data to inform decision-making. Yet the specific data they collect, as well as its interpretation, is under continual reevaluation and debate. Knowledge is being built, tested, and revised through this process. How this knowledge is implemented in each country, in the design of public health policies such as quarantine or social distancing, further depends upon the particular cultural context involved and the scientific consensus established in that region.
The global picture is rapidly changing, and politicians repeatedly emphasize the challenge of making big decisions, with major consequences, in the midst of much uncertainty. We are asked to trust the experts, but experts in different regions are proposing different measures. While public health authorities worry about the threat of misinformation, they are less prepared for this challenge to their authority. This is particularly clear in the Netherlands, where the national public health agency has been comparatively late in acknowledging that people without symptoms can spread infection, and where the government measures just proposed are far less restrictive than in neighbouring nations.
Government leader Mark Rutte appealed recently to the “sobriety” of the country’s citizens, apparently justifying the slow response and limited proposals as a reassuringly Dutch approach. But individuals and institutions here are beginning to take more restrictive measures, and preparing for a far longer timeframe than our leaders have advised. Perhaps the government advice was intended as a first step towards these larger changes in the coming weeks, but in the absence of a credible official strategy, many are already taking on such responsibilities. A massive social shift is already underway, and that is something to be proud of.
Together, we will still need to push for broader changes. We know that this virus is particularly dangerous for older people and those with underlying health issues, but the risks of falling ill, the severity of that illness, and access to treatment, will vary across all other groups. Disease does discriminate, and those living on the margins and in poverty are in more danger, with less support. There is an urgent need to address these inequalities now, as we will not be able to control the spread and severity of the pandemic so long as certain segments of society are left unprotected. We will need our leaders to work together, with us, to achieve that. And we will need to help one another, within and between nations, to improve our prospects overall.
Manon Parry is professor of medical history and coordinates the MA in Medical and Health Humanities at VU University, Amsterdam. See her previous post on this topic here, or on Twitter @ManonParry1