How Dutch culture is reflected in their handling of the pandemic

The way countries are dealing with the current coronavirus pandemic can say a lot about their culture. The Netherlands is taking a more loose approach, which serves as a demonstration of their independence. And it’s not the first time. 

 

It was a beautiful day to be walking around the park. The sun filled the sky as my skin absorbed its warmth, and the sound of laughter blew around in the slight breeze. People flooded the area in groups scattered amongst the grass, and it was so packed it was hard to find a spot to sit down. I saw teenagers throwing balls around in the field, children with ice cream dripping down their chin, an old couple sitting together on a blanket. Could not be better, right? Then I remembered. We are in the midst of a global pandemic.

People out enjoying the day at Wihelminapark in Utrecht.

People out enjoying the day at Wihelminapark in Utrecht on May 30, 2020.

Being from a diverse country like Canada, I have always been interested in learning more about other cultures. I made the decision to move to Utrecht, Netherlands for five months because I wanted to learn more about Dutch culture and really immerse myself in the European lifestyle. What I didn’t expect is the outbreak of the coronavirus. But in a lot of ways, living in the Netherlands during this time has shown me culture on an entirely different scale.

Back home, people would never have been able to gather in parks the way they do here. In Canada during the height of the pandemic all public parks were closed. In fact, just about everything closed that was not absolutely essential.

But walking around in downtown Utrecht and Amsterdam, especially as the spread of the virus began to slow down and the weather began to get warmer, there lacked a feeling of fear in the air.

The Dutch government calls their approach an “intelligent lockdown,” meaning only the stores or places that are at a high risk of spreading the virus shut down. This resulted in all restaurants, contact-based professions, schools, etc. having to close for a period of time. Gatherings of more than three people were forbidden and restricted to those who live together. Over time some restrictions have been lifted, and now more businesses are open again as long as they can cooperate with the 1.5 metre distancing rule. Overall everyday life was disturbed, but it was far from an actual lockdown by definition.

People flood the streets of Utrecht

The city centre of Utrecht on June 13, 2020.

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede is known for defining parameters that can be used to cross-examine cultures. One of these parameters is degree of independence, of which the Netherlands has one of the highest scores amongst European countries. This means that people tend to take care of themselves first and foremost. The Dutch would rather have a “loosely-knit social framework.”

Dr. Jaap Verheul, an expert in Dutch and transatlantic cultural history, explains that the Dutch having a strong sense of independence can likely justify their loose approach during this time compared to other countries, and the fact that strict rules probably would not work out very well if they tried.

“We have a long tradition of informal interpretation of the law, which we call “gedogen” (toleration), which leaves considerable room for personal and local variation,” Verheul says.

Verheul compares this to the United States, who are much stricter in terms of law enforcement and legal interpretation than the Netherlands. “American national identity, some say, is defined by a set of principles, and American Creed, that is derived from the constitution. No one in the Netherlands would dare to claim such a constitutional common core.”

This is not the first time the Netherlands has handled a pandemic without strict regulations. In an article written by Marlène E. Cornelis, she examines the approach taken during the Spanish Flu in 1918. Cornelis says the Dutch government never declared a state of emergency like other countries at the time, and left the local governments to take measures rather than taking action on a national level.

“It is generally assumed that epidemics lead to social segregation and the scapegoating of certain sections of the community,” Cornelis explains in the article. “However, this was not the case in the Netherlands; instead the Spanish flu led to feelings of unity and charity towards one’s neighbors. Daily life went on as normal.” 

This more lenient approach does not seem out of left field for everyone. Paulina Hilbig lived in both Germany and the Netherlands for parts of the pandemic and did not find there to be a large amount of differences between the measures the countries took. 

With that being said, Hilbig still finds that the Dutch seem to not follow social distancing as strictly. She describes how in public places like grocery stores, people seem less afraid to come within 1.5 metres of her than they were in her town of Butzbach, Germany. 

Although not as much as the Netherlands, Germany is also a country that is considered to be individualistic. According to Hofstede, they tend to have a strong sense of duty and responsibility, as they demonstrate by trying to follow restrictions during this time. 

Hilbig said one of the biggest differences she found living in both countries is the attitude towards the current circumstances. “In Germany a lot of people complain about the situation, but here I haven’t met anyone who complained about this. Dutch people are really relaxed and in Germany they go crazy right now.”

Groups gathered in Wilhelminapark in Utrecht

Groups gathered in Wilhelminapark in Utrecht on May 30, 2020.

Another cultural parameter from Hofstede is long term orientation. This is the idea of how countries use their past experiences to deal with problems of the future. The Netherlands ranks high on this dimension, meaning the Dutch show an ability to adapt depending on the situation and commonly show perseverance. This could be used to explain their positive attitudes even in difficult times, or the fact that they do not seem as fearful of the situation as much as people from other countries. 

How citizens feel about the situation is often also a reflection of the way it is portrayed to them. Verheul explains that people in the Netherlands typically do not display strong national pride, which can be seen in the approach the government is taking. Verheul describes the first corona speech given by the French president, who spoke from the presidential palace in front of the French flag, arguing the importance of duty and order. On the other hand, the Dutch prime minister spoke from a small office that appeared to be a study, and spoke of common goals and the need for personal responsibility.

“That probably sums up the difference: the Dutch prime minister tried to speak on the basis of equality and openly admits that he, too, is searching for the best solution, on the basis of the scientific knowledge we have. Macron was presidential and emphasized French identity,” Verheul says.

At the end of the day, no matter how each country is tackling this pandemic, everyone is just searching for their variation of the best solution. Despite my surprise to see how the Dutch are handling this, I do not think there is a ‘correct’ method. Different approaches work for different cultures, and for an independent society like the Netherlands, a loose approach is what makes the most sense.