Coronavirus: US vs. The Netherlands

Because I’m an American expat living in the Netherlands, I almost always find myself comparing between the two cultures, even without trying. I mean, I even wrote a post about how something as simple as grocery shopping can be so different in the two countries. So of course, now in this Coronavirus crisis, I find myself comparing the two countries yet again.

I am also in a unique situation to be able to compare the way in which the Netherlands and the US are handling the Coronavirus outbreak. Four weeks ago, when things started to get out of hand, I was actually in the US on vacation, visiting friends and my girlfriend Sara who was living there at the time. Since then, I have been able to return back to the Netherlands and we have been able to move Sara back to the Netherlands where she’s from. But our friends are still back in the US and my parents actually live in New York, the state most hit by the coronavirus right now.

Through all of this, I can’t help but be so grateful to be in the Netherlands when all of this is happening. Even though I’m worried about my parents, I tell myself that the best I can do for them is to make sure that they are following the recommended ways to stay safe. Which is to stay inside. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to think that it’s a problem to go about their day, even now! And my mom works at a hospital.

The way my parents reacted to my suggestions told me that they were getting mixed information. Since our conversation last week, things have changed a bit, for sure. But it got me thinking about how my friends and family back in the US are experiencing the Coronavirus crisis versus how I’m experiencing it here. I’ve also noticed other differences from trying to keep up with as much news as possible without it taking over my brain entirely. Did you know that reading the news for 5+ hours a day is not great for your mental heath during a pandemic? You probably knew that, but I didn’t and found out the hard way.

One thing that really stood out to me is the attitude of the people in the Netherlands versus the US. Of course I am not in both places at the same time, and of course I’m only speaking from my experiences, but with that caveat, here we go. I get the sense that there is a more of a sense of community in the Netherlands around the coronavirus outbreak. When the Dutch community was first asked to stay inside, the attitude around this was mostly that of people trying to do their best to help “flatten the curve” and do good for society. In the US, at least the first sense that I got was that people were mostly concerned about THEM getting the virus. Which I understand, this is a scary time for all. But it is a difference that I noticed. I felt that more healthier people felt comfortable going out in public because they still didn’t believe that the situation was serious enough.

It took a lot longer for the lockdown to get going in the US, and my friends were still having dinner outside DAYS after the Netherlands had shut down its restaurants and gyms. At that point the US put a travel ban on Europe, where people weren’t allowed to come into the US. But that week, things in US were more or less “normal”. In the Netherlands, funnily enough, people are still trying to maintain a feeling of things being normal. The government did not and has not forced strict restrictions onto people. On the other hand, many people still try to stay indoors as much as possible themselves. There really is a sense of community that helps me feel safe here. For instance, I was walking around my neighborhood in Utrecht yesterday, and I saw these banners hanging from the buildings on the street.

The banner, in Dutch, says something like, “when this is over, we can hug again.” Such a wonderful message to see in your precious “outside time”.

People are looking out for each other in the Netherlands, and I see that through restaurants taking it upon themselves to deliver food to seniors in the community who can’t leave their homes. Many people and places actually do these things for free, and that’s part of the privilege of being in a country like the Netherlands where we pay high taxes, but in return, the government takes care of us.

I was horrified to see the number of people who have filed for unemployment in the US. Even more horrifying is the fact that they have lost their health insurance in a time like this. Without jobs, how are people going to feed themselves? And because the US is so big, there is very little help that people can get from their communities, even when people are doing their best. Here in the Netherlands, the government is making sure to pay the salaries of workers who are directly affected. People are also not worried about their health coverage because everyone has health insurance here that is separate from their jobs. This sense of safety is very different from what I’ve heard is happening in the US. I think it’s great that schools are providing food to low income families, but at the same time, there was no social-distancing going on in the videos that I saw of people lining up to get food! Still, it’s a great initiative, but something that actually isn’t happening in the Netherlands.

The way families are affected by schools closing is also the same in both countries in many ways, but different in some ways too. One of these things is that some families in the US are dependent on schools staying open for meals. In both countries, schools being closed now means that parents who do still have to go into work can’t really do so. One unique thing I’ve seen in the Netherlands, which was surprising to me at least, was that schools have now become a place where kids who are in unsafe home environments (people being sick, abusive caretakers) and kids of essential workers can stay. They have some teachers taking turns to watch these kids as much as possible.

It is really impressive that because the Netherlands is a small country, it is relatively clear what the guidelines are for the public. The prime minister gives press conferences, and decides rules for the general public based on the best scientific judgments reported to him. In the US, it really isn’t that clear. My parents who live in NY don’t know whether they should be going in to work or not. Different US states, which are affected differently, also have different rules. Not to mention that the news channels can be really confusing. From what I can tell, it is only now that most people in the country are taking this pandemic seriously.

Following the suggestions by the scientific community in the Netherlands also seems to give people a sense of comfort. People know that this is a shitty time for everyone and people are pitching in to do what they can. But life also still goes on here. There isn’t a complete lockdown, but there are restrictions on what people can do. If outside with someone, there should always be 1.5 meters of distance between you and the other person. If you would like to get some fresh air, that’s not forbidden. You can still walk outside, but the recommendation is that you do it in your own neighborhood. No one is outside with a mask here. In the US, wearing a mask is now the latest recommendation to the American public.

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