The mask has become the metaphor for the confusion surrounding the corona measures. Does the cap help or does it not help? Should the cap be put on, or shouldn’t it? There is no unambiguous view. Lack of clear guidelines has meant that the initially more and more present mask is slowly but surely disappearing from the Dutch street scene. A paradoxical development because on the other hand, the call in society to wear mouth masks seems to be increasing. But apparently it is something else to do this as individuals. It is food for psychologists.
Due to mandatory face masking measures in (surrounding) countries and questions from local administrators, the Cabinet requested the Outbreak Management Team (OMT) to investigate the usefulness of this attribute again last week. Last Wednesday, the experts’ unchanged verdict came: “There is no undisputed evidence that non-medical mouth caps protect against the spread of Covid-19.”
Subsequently, the cabinet concluded that from a health perspective “there is no reason to require a non-medical mouth mask”. At the same time, however, Minister Hugo de Jonge (Public Health, CDA) wrote on behalf of the cabinet that he would have ‘understanding’ if experiments were carried out with mask masks in safety regions. Very recognizable. The tolerance-must-be-able mentality is simply an important and ubiquitous element in Dutch government culture.
Thus, almost immediately after the cabinet decision, the mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam announced that they would be required to wear a mask for busy parts of their cities from next week. Thus, as witnessed by the experts, to create a ‘false security’ situation.
The line of the cabinet is understandable but also pinches. The non-compulsory wearing of the face mask builds on the ‘intelligent lockdown’ that Prime Minister Rutte (VVD) introduced at the beginning of the crisis. Customization is decisive. Apart from that, there are general recommendations such as keeping a distance of one and a half meters. It is precisely on this point that things go wrong because this rule is being observed less and less. If the proverbial corona fatigue manifests itself somewhere it is here. It is therefore of the utmost importance that, now that the number of contamination cases is also increasing in the Netherlands, compliance with the rules is enforced more strictly.
But maintaining without persuasion remains difficult. The problem is that the cabinet, but also the experts from the OMT, undermine their own persuasion with the laconic approach to the mask. There may be false safety, but there are also the necessary behavioral studies that state that wearing mouth masks underlines the seriousness of the epidemic. Mouth masks can thus contribute to compliance with the one and a half meter doctrine.
It is also good for the persuasiveness of tackling the global epidemic that countries have as much as possible one ‘solo’ try to avoid. Why did the Netherlands designate Croatia as a risk zone at the beginning of last week when other European countries did not? Why does the Netherlands not prescribe mandatory corona tests for travelers arriving from sources of infection, while other countries do? It all adds to the attitude of non-commitment. An attitude that is counterproductive in fighting the virus.
According to the latest figures from RIVM, the number of infections in the Netherlands is increasing again. The Netherlands is thus participating in the trend that can also be observed elsewhere in Europe. This is an increase that was foreseen when it was decided to relax the restrictive measures as of 1 July. More exercise leads to more infections. It is important whether the increase is controllable. That seems to be the case for the time being.
Compared to many other countries, the Netherlands knew and has a relaxed approach to the epidemic. Which does not mean that the consequences are not immense and far-reaching. Wherever possible, a conscious and rightful choice was not made for the Dirigist approach, but an appeal was made to citizens’ own responsibility. However, this is only possible if the government does not send confusing or conflicting signals. But that is happening too much now.
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC Handelsblad of 1 August 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next dated August 1, 2020