08 May Letter from Amsterdam in the time of Corona
Dear friends and colleagues,
We are into our 6th week of corona-inspired restrictions on normal life here in the Netherlands. Our Prime Minister has taken to styling our domestic corona approach as an ‘intelligent lockdown,’ driven more by trust than by compulsion. And the more I speak and correspond with friends and colleagues in other countries, the happier I am with this. The Dutch approach has been at the looser, ‘riskier’ end of the range of clampdown measures instituted across developed markets – closer to Sweden than to France or Spain or many US states. People are expected to work from home, schools, restaurants and sport centres are shut and all events have been cancelled through 1 September now. But outside exercise is encouraged, and normal (also non-food) shop opening is up to the management, so long as distancing can be enforced and staff are protected. IKEA reopens next week. There is a boom in plexiglass fitters. In parks and public places, we are exhorted in all sorts of ways to respect the guidelines and support the general effort.
If you go to a garden centre, DIY store or supermarket, an attendant in overalls will roll a freshly wiped-down trolley your way, hopefully with a smile. Failing this, paper and spray are there for you to do it yourself. But artistic and hospitality businesses have been decimated. Hotels, restaurants, clubs, movies, music venues and bars are shut. Three of our 4 children work in these industries and are waiting for light in the tunnel. Some light there is that lower schools open again soon, to huge relief amongst parents. Restaurants are reliant on takeaway only, and even some of Amsterdam’s trendiest eateries are playing along: you order your 3-4 course dinner kits online (now well in advance, as word spreads), and these come with YouTube videos from the chef for assembly and explanation. Despite government support packages, many will not survive. On my walk to the office in the mornings, I can buy a fancy coffee more or less every 20 metres. I pick up a cappuccino from Rashid, a restauranteur around the corner from our place, who has philosophically accepted this. Sayshe’s met more people from the neighbourhood now than in the 20 years prior.
The fact that I walk to the office at all is itself a slightly exceptional behaviour. Everyone in office jobs is working from home. In our case, we aren’t short of space, but my wife is a college lecturer, so often in meetings or giving lessons and coaching students on Zoom – so for me, wandering (often with the dog) to the office is sensible. We can’t both be zooming all the time. And the office is empty anyhow. I scrub it down myself, like a germ freak, every couple days. But apart from me and the Corgi, there isn’t much traffic. I have an 8-ball on my keychain that presses buttons. There is something faintly absurd about this. I wonder how many corona-angels can be crowded onto the head of a pin terminal or elevator button.
All the walking is good for conference calls, podcasts, or just plain clearing heads. I don’t have squealing kids in the background of my calls; more likely people will complain about quacking ducks or my dog barking (“Jan, mute please!”). These past few weeks we have also been blessed here with clement weather. This has led to an explosion of outdoor recreation. It isn’t just me — everyone is jogging, walking, skating, or cycling. Trying to avoid crowded parks, I have been seeking out deserted urban routes and pathways. I have discovered more empty quarters of the city than I thought existed. You see off-beat shop windows – a bridal shop offering lacy designer masks – and one stumbles across a new sort of corona-trash: rubber gloves and discarded facemasks.
Making an appointment to have a walk with a friend or business acquaintance – at 1.5m distance – has become a ‘thing’. The Government encourages this, but the science is inconclusive. Why do we do 1.5-metre distancing (we talk about the “1.5-meter society”) when so many other places are insisting on 2m (or ~6 feet)? Do Dutch viruses have weaker wings? Here below sea-level can’t they hack the heavy air? Is it so windy here that aerosol transmission is thwarted? No one actually knows any of these things for sure. But we have a skeptical if hard-headed and willing acceptance that our scientists are probably more sensible than anyone else’s. 1.5m is good enough. Nationalism rears its head: the French are dirigiste and autocratic, the Swedes are too fast and loose, and the Germans are, well, German. Who knows what is happening on the ground in China, and the US continues to lose grip of its role as a global leader.
And then we have the issues around all this time we spend online, in calls, absorbing bad news about the state of the world, listening to each other virtually instead of seeing and understanding what we have to say live. This has technological challenges as well. On my iPhone, I have video discussion apps including the trusty old Skype and Facetime, but now also Zoom, Teams, Meet, Webex, and Houseparty. The last insisted upon by my kids, with initially comic results that I ‘crashed’ parties with their friends by accident. This all exacts a certain mental toll, including the difficulty of staying sufficiently alert in long and winding calls. According to my activity-measuring wearable gadget, I slept through parts of a 14.00 post-lunch discussion about proposal documentation. I assure you that this is fake news generated by my untrustworthy Huawei Fitbit-clone, infected by a Wuhan-based troll farm.
Generally speaking, this time of corona has led to a curious fragmentation in our sensibilities. We hunker down and care for those closest, yet we agonise about statistics and national policies and flattening curves. And while we scoff at the silly foreigners, we feel deeply for the Italians and the New Yorkers. We go out and clap our hands for health workers at 8pm. When we hear an aircraft, it is anomalous, and we look up: a little Cessna circling lazily like a bumblebee, alone in the sky; a screeching solitary fighter jet, or a trauma helicopter hurrying to the hospital. We take our exercise in quiet, serene, and deserted streets and enjoy the urban quiet. Yet we listen to the news assuring us that the world is dissolving in economic mayhem, political chaos, and mental distress.
But tomorrow, we’ll get on the zoom again, work on hopeful projects like the COVID emergency loan deal, restructure projects, encourage colleagues, and think about possibilities. And I for one will be pleased with the cleaner than usual air, the friendly wave of my chef with his cappuccino machine, and the next steps ahead in our path.
May you all have safe and rewarding pathways in the days ahead.
Amsterdam, April 2020