Friday, 12 Aug 2022

Opinion | We’re Locked Down Again in the Netherlands. Here’s a Warning.

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By Senay Boztas

Ms. Boztas is a British journalist who has lived in the Netherlands for more than a decade and has written and worked for media including The Guardian, The Sunday Times of London and the BBC.

AMSTERDAM — Since 5 a.m. on Sunday, bars, restaurants, museums, schools, clothing stores, gift shops and anything resembling fun have been closed across the Netherlands. We’ve become the first European country to go back to lockdown life amid Omicron (until at least early January): It was “unavoidable,” said Prime Minister Mark Rutte. So here we are, looking over the borders enviously at holiday sales and seasonal celebrations in Belgian Antwerp. Once more, it doesn’t look a lot like Christmas.

The Netherlands’ lockdown stands as a warning to the United States, other European countries and Covid hot spots across the globe. The warning, though, isn’t just about Omicron — other countries have more coronavirus cases and worse vaccination rates than the Netherlands does, and they are not locking down (at least yet).

The warning is about policy failures — the failure to start a booster campaign sooner, to spin up free testing capacity quickly when needed, to persuade more groups of the benefits of vaccines and to ensure there are enough beds in intensive care. Now our hospitals are already full of patients who are infected with the Delta variant, and we probably won’t have enough beds for all of the people who need care if the Omicron wave hits vaccinated people hard too.

Think of the Dutch lockdown as a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a Dickensian warning — in a country where the annual Dickens festival has been canceled — about the need for every country to be on its toes in the pandemic era.

So far this holiday season, Europe is trying to allow at least some festive cheer. While Austria enforced a sharp three-week lockdown and severe limits on the unvaccinated, many countries are still trying to avoid shutdowns. In Germany, the vaccinated will be able to have up to 10 guests at New Year’s parties; Boris Johnson is determined not to have new British restrictions yet; Belgium is closing certain indoor venues; and France has largely closed restaurants to the unvaccinated — but these countries are not at crisis point.

In the Netherlands, we are, because of the lack of strong and consistent crisis management. Part of the reason is that the government resigned in January and the country took 271 days to form a new one after the March elections. But our troubles also stem from ever-more-unhelpful ideas about freedom — a word with great resonance and many meanings here as well as in the United States and across the West.

The current Dutch lockdown was triggered foremost by a record-breaking average of 22,000 new infections a day at the end of November (in a country of 17.6 million), with severe cases largely among people who have chosen not to get vaccinated, and a rapid spread among school-age children.

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