The coronavirus outbreak has pushed governments out of their confines and into unchartered territory. It has placed a spotlight on policy makers, forcing them to step up — because failure to do would have massive consequences. It also means that the legislative and executive branches are accumulating more power. Is that a good thing?
This will have a huge impact on people's freedom from an astonishing growth of unchecked governments' power.
— City Talks (@CitytalksO) April 28, 2020
In the span of a few weeks, a microscopic particle has had a colossal impact on society. Democracies have been shaken to their very core as businesses have been shut down, educational institutions are no longer conducting classes, draconian-style lockdowns have been imposed and regulations for social contacts have been put into place.
The crisis is transformed into an opportunity for governments to extend their powers. And people are allowing this because it’s literally a matter of life — or death.
Viktor Orban in Hungary has, for instance, used the virus to consolidate his dictatorship and give even more power to the government. He can now stay in power without any time limit. Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked swiftly to impose a total lockdown in India. It proved to be disproportionately harmful to the poor but did stop the spread of the virus. Here in the Netherlands, a partial lockdown has been imposed and surveillance has been increased, measures that would be unthinkable in “normal” times. But so far, they seem to be working.
So is increased power to the government a good thing?
Coronavirus in the Netherlands and how it is being dealt with
The Netherlands lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of severity of measures.
Initially, the Dutch government was criticised for failing to do enough. But in mid-March, the government announced measures that can be viewed as a partial lockdown. Restaurants, gyms and other such places were shut, people were advised to work from home, education moved completely online. A distance rule of 1 .5 meters between people in groups of three or more was imposed. Although this approach wasn’t necessarily condoned by the public, Rutte contended that a total lockdown would firstly contradict democratic values, and that it was unnecessary.
Later on, stricter measures were added to the list, after people failed to take the advice seriously. These included fines for people who failed to respect the distance rule, as well a ban of all public events (which have now been extended to September 1).
Meanwhile, surveillance has increased. For instance, apps have been developed in the Netherlands to report people who appear to be violating the measures in place.
It goes without saying the government is imposing measures (and fines for violating them) that would, prior to the crisis, be completely contrary to a democracy, measures that appear to violate a number of fundamental human rights. But so far, it appears as if the measures have been working: The curve, once exponential, has now begun to plateau.
Today 905 patients related to the #coronavirus are on the intensive care. This is 29 less than yesterday and the sixteenth consecutive day with a decrease of occupied IC beds. #coronavirusNL #coronaNederland pic.twitter.com/zX2qOkffCh
— TAG (@itsTAGofficial) April 27, 2020
This proves that in the Netherlands, the coronavirus measures are not completely arbitrary.
Looking after people who can’t work anymore
With closing so many stores, businesses and a foreseeable recession in the near the future, the government is doing its part to ensure that people are making their ends meet even though unemployment is becoming ubiquitous.
Self-employed persons who are hit by coronavirus measures are now eligible for a TOZO, or temporary bridging scheme for independent entrepreneurs till June 1, and possibly longer if the crisis continues.
Entrepreneurs affected by the 1.5m regulations are also eligible for a one-off payment of €4,000 — this is for businesses such as museums and hairdressers, and businesses will received money instantly, not months from now. This demonstrates the efficient manner in which the government is executing tasks.
Education is being closely monitored, and the government is actively listening to advice provided by the Education Council on how to go about this.
Because of the coronavirus restrictions, education has shifted online. As a result, children from many lower-income families who may not have internet access or computers available, are hit hard.
However, the Dutch government addressed this issue by providing children with laptops so that they could still access coursework online. Other NGOs also pitched in. Obviously more could be done, but this is still a pretty good step in the right direction.
Strain on healthcare system
Initially there was a fear here in the Netherlands, that ICU capacity would fall short. Thankfully, numbers of ICU patients began to drop some weeks ago. Nonetheless, the Dutch government prepared itself for the worst case.
For starters, the option to transfer ICU patients to Germany was made available just in case the Netherlands ran out of space. In the meantime, ICU capacity was increased to 2,400 total beds from 1,150. Furthermore, the testing capacity here in the Netherlands was also increased in an attempt to make numbers slightly more accurate.
The government is also providing funds to invest in the development of apps, that can be used to report, track and test the virus.
So how well is the Dutch government doing?
In order to ensure that people follow rules, it is clear that enforcement has become stricter. For instance, over Easter weekend this year, €700,000 worth in fines was collected for failure to adhere to coronavirus measures.
But numbers in the Netherlands are falling without the imposition of a total lockdown. It seems then, that the government is attempting to remain democratic by only restricting daily life where necessary.
People are impressed by the work of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his cabinet. 91% of the public supported Rutte’s partial lockdown, 88% supported the measures related to health and 75% supported the economic measures, according to i&o research. Furthermore, satisfaction with Rutte’s cabinet increased from 42% to 61%.
🇳🇱 #Netherlands | General election poll (seats)
⬜️ SP 9
🟫 PvdD 5
🟩 GL 11
⬜️ DENK 2
🟥 PvdA 18
🟦 50PLUS 8
🟨 D66 11
🟨 VVD 30
🟦 CDA 15
🟦 CU 8
🟪 SGP 4
🟪 FvD 12
🆔 PVV 17
— Electograph 🏠 👐🧼 (@Electograph) April 26, 2020
Other leaders are experiencing similar trends. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval rating rose by 11 points to 79%, according to Forbes. In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s popularity rating jumped to 71%. Similar trends in approval ratings are also present in France, the UK, Canada and India to name a few.
The approval that is given to governments shows that people are in support of the measures, even though they might be difficult, and give governments the stamp of approval needed in order to continue imposing necessary measures.
Times of crises can lead to growth
In these times, whatever a government is doing is a matter of trial and error, as there is no correct formula on how to address the virus. In some ways, we are serving as guinea pigs for government policies. Increases in mass surveillance and regulation of private life are things we don’t normally support, and the hope is that these won’t become norms after the crisis subsides.
But in other ways, we are testing new lifestyles. These include online learning, online work, and even online gyms — things that would likely not have been put into place so quickly. These are developments that are expanding the scope of the digital world.
The #COVID19 crisis—which is changing the way we live and work, and perhaps priorities in life and mindsets—can pivot economies towards “building back better”, with a greater focus on clean energy, green jobs and sustainable development. https://t.co/zmoCMGxpG1
— UN Environment Programme (@UNEP) April 27, 2020
The only hope is whatever measures that are put into place have a clear purpose, and that governments are not arbitrarily exercising their power.
How is the Dutch government doing compared to your home country? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Feature Image: DutchReview/Canva